Staring a potentially insurmountable 0-2 series hole in the the face, the Celtics dug deep and pulled out a vintage Big Four game (except they did it without two of them) and beat the Hawks, 87-80, in Game 2 on Tuesday night in Atlanta to tie the best-of-seven series at 1-1.
At the end of the day, they have one person to thank for it: the captain, Paul Pierce.
Pierce was tremendous, even monster-like as Doc Rivers put it, scoring 26 points and grabbing 14 rebounds to send the C's home with the series knotted up. Pierce scored the Celts' first nine points, had a game-high 16 points at halftime and took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 of Boston's 26 points. Boston outscored Atlanta, 26-14, in the fourth.
"A lot of experience, confidence, you know, being in those moments, believing in yourself, coaches that believe in you, teammates that believe in you. It's a combination of all those things," Pierce said about his late-game success. "Coming from high school, junior high, elementary. Just the confidence that you have so many people that believe in you whether you succeed or fail. There are a lot of times I've failed to just put my in this position now."
Rondo was suspended for Game 2 after chest bumping referee Marc Davis in the fourth quarter of the Celtics' loss in Game 1. With Rondo on the sidelines, many thought the Celtics were toast. Instead, Pierce pulled out a vintage performance and Kevin Garnett (15 points, 12 rebounds), Avery Bradley (13 points) and Keyon Dooling (six points) helped the C's patch up the holes en route to their first postseason win of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.
Ray Allen was again absent (although he's making his way closer to the court. On Tuesday, he was at least sitting on the bench in a suit. Progress?), and the bench struggled for the most part. Of the Celtics' 87 points, only 14 came from the reserves. Still, if you can believe it, the bench was effective. At least, Dooling and Marquis Daniels were.
Dooling only had six points on two shots, but boy were they big. Dooling's two shots were big threes, both in the third quarter from the corner. One of Dooling's threes came at 6:35, cutting Atlanta's lead to 55-49. The other came at 3:33, making it a 65-54 Hawks' lead.
"Keyon was huge with the two big threes when the game could have went either way ... he hit a three to keep us in the game both times," said Pierce.
"Keyon's a veteran, that's why you want guys like that on your team," said Rivers. "No situation is going to be too big for him, and then he made the two big shots. And his defense, his energy. I also thought he helped Avery. They were putting a lot of pressure on the ball with Avery, and I thought Keyon helped him bring the ball up the floor."
Daniels had four points and two rebounds in 14 minutes, but played key minutes. Mickael Pietrus picked up three quick fouls in the first quarter and Sasha Pavlovic was tagged for two early fouls, opening the door for Daniels to make an impact when it mattered most.
"You never know when your number is going to get called. Coach [Rivers] said that before the series started. I don't think Marquis played in Game 1, but he came in, gave us some valuable minutes defensively," Pierce said. "It's going to be up to everybody just to be ready. Some guys aren't going to play some games, but that's what being a professional is being all about, being ready in these type of moments. He was more than ready, came in played terrific defense, rebounded the ball. It was big for us, putting him on Joe Johnson. He also came in late and guarded Joe pretty well."
Pierce's words will need to be heeded in Game 3 on Friday night at TD Garden. Boston will get a big boost in the form of Rondo's return, but no one knows if Allen will be able to play, meaning players like Pietrus, Dooling, Pavlovic and Daniels will see important minutes.
The same will likely be true for the Hawks, as Josh Smith left the game late in the fourth with a left knee sprain. Smith will have an MRI on Wednesday, and his status for Game 3 and beyond probably won't be known until game time. Needless to say, Smith would be a huge loss. The star of Game 1 (22 points, 18 rebounds) and a factor in Game 2 (16 points, 12 rebounds), Smith could be the difference in a seven game series and a five game one.
The win put Boston back on track, for now, and with Rondo back, things are looking up.