BOSTON — Just about everyone in a Celtics uniform could boast about a solid performance on Sunday after Boston dismantled the Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference playoff series. To reserve guard Keyon Dooling, however, the alpha dog in the Celtics' pack was undisputed.
"The difference in this game in the first half was, we had Paul Pierce," Dooling said.
Pierce scored 10 points in the first nine minutes of the game and never really slowed down, finishing with 24 points in less than 17 minutes in the Celtics' 101-79 win. He was dominant, to put it mildly, but his dominant performance almost did not happen.
Pierce tweaked his knee in Sunday morning's shootaround, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers disclosed after his team moved within one game of eliminating the Hawks in the best-of-seven series. The Celtics captain said he "sat around" for the last half of shootaround, and there was real doubt as to whether he would play in the game.
"When I left shootaround, I thought he probably was not going to play," Rivers said. "Eddie [Lacerte, the Celtics' head athletic trainer] said, 'Let's give it a try and see how he feels.' "
For almost two full quarters, Pierce was "feeling it" — not in terms of pain, but in the basketball sense. He hit a 3-pointer midway through the second quarter to give him 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting, putting the Celtics ahead of the Hawks by 24 points.
Just as quickly as the TD Garden crowd erupted, it fell silent a few seconds later when Pierce fought through a screen, got tangled up with Hawks forward Josh Smith and crumpled to the court. The crowd was unaware that Pierce was playing through an injury, but all they needed to see was him clutching at his left knee to know something was not right.
Pierce spent the rest of the first half riding a stationary bike near the mouth of the Celtics' tunnel, and the collective sigh from the stands was almost audible when Pierce started the second half. He appeared to be dragging his left leg when he drilled two 3-pointers in the first three minutes of the third quarter before he took a seat for good, watching the rest of the blowout from the comfort of the bench.
In a game that featured Ray Allen, Al Horford, Smith and a host of wounded players dealing with pain, Pierce's performance still stood out for its sheer efficiency. He might have gone for 40 points or more, had it been necessary.
"Paul was in the zone," Kevin Garnett said. "There's nothing more to that. I have nothing more to say. He was going off one leg for a minute, but as far as arc and form and height [on his shot], he was perfect."
It was a perfect effort that came close to never happening.
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