Paul Pierce’s teammates mobbed him at center court until he broke free and jumped atop the scorer’s table. Coach Jim O’Brien’s ever-present poker face disappeared, the most stoic of NBA coaches pumping his fist to the crowd and walking triumphantly off the court… “It was purgatory, it might have been closer to Hell for three quarters, but that last one was Eden. Damn, that was great,” [Jim] O’Brien said.
Some readers may be too young and others too senile to remember that Paul Pierce nearly a decade ago enjoyed perhaps his finest individual moment as a Celtic. It occurred during a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey in 2002. Splitting the 1st two games, Game 3 at first seemed to be the possible unraveling of Pierce as a legit go-to player in this league but by the time it was over, the Celtics had pulled off the largest 4th quarter comeback in playoff history thanks to Pierce.
I witnessed this historic game back on May 25, 2002, in beautiful San Antonio, Texas. Visiting my great-grandmother in a nursing home, my brother and I found comfort from the specter of debilitating old age by watching the Nets and Câ€™s duke it out on the TV.
Actually, it wasnâ€™t much of a fight. New Jersey quickly opened the flood gates swishing jumpers and fastbreaking Boston into oblivion. The Celtics had their fair share of easy shots within a few feet of the rim, but only Eric Williams was of any use as Boston fell behind by 15 points. Pierce was abysmal going 0-5. Boston showed some fight with a 13-4 run to cut the lead to 6 in the 2nd, but like Sebastian Shaw absorbs blows and hurls energy back at enemies, New Jersey swelled its lead to 20 points by the half. Pierce was now an abysmal 1-9.
As the 3rd Quarter gets underway, the Boston crowd is restless. Boos rain down, Celtics players look discombobulated, and New Jersey continues the assault pushing the lead up to 25 points at times. Toward the quarterâ€™s end Pierce finally shows signs of life beyond that of an amoeba. He and Kidd receive a double technical for jawing at each other. However, the truth is that Paul is still turning in a putrid performance with 9 points on 2-14 shooting. Amoebas everywhere are ashamed as the quarter comes to a close.
With this break in the action, we leave the bedside of my ailing great-grandmother and head over to my grandmotherâ€™s house just 10 minutes away. When we arrive, my grandpa a basketball guru (and devout Lakers fan) is watching the game and in an excited tone tells us of the rally taking place. Boston has gone on a tear and severed New Jerseyâ€™s lead by 10 points or so.
Re-watching the game later, I learn that Antoine Walker may just have provided the spark for this comeback as he castigated his team for showing so little heart and urged them to step it up. On this day Walker had cause to speak. He was the only Celtic showing any (productive) gusto to this point in the game. The spark tossed by Walker apparently ignited Pierceâ€™s fuse and blew off the shackles because the Truth was set free.
Pierceâ€™s array of moves is astounding. Out near the 3-point line, Paul drives right by his man all the way to the hoop for a layup. He takes on a triple team and banks in a two handed runner. He worms his way around a defender and shovels in a basket. On the break, Pierce completes an up-and-under-and-1 layup. The most beautiful of all is a spin move to split a double team, which ends with Paul gently finger rolling the ball into the hoop. Most surprising for viewers of today, Pierce doesn’t attempt any stepback elbow jumpers. It’s all action going at the rim.
New Jersey is clearly on the ropes with Pierce turning into a wrecking ball, Kenny Anderson making 5 straight shots and Walker continuing his solid play. The Nets’ only hope is Aaron Williams who scored 11 of NJ’s 16 4th quarter points and Tony Delkâ€™s erratic and genuinely dumb play. Tony makes a good block on defense and then manages to try a tough double-clutch layup over two Nets on the other end. Of course he misses. Another stellar decision occurs on the very next play, another transition opportunity he ruins, this time with a pull up three that clanks hard.
As time is winding down, Pierce has slowed a bit but is still finding his way to the rim, getting hammered and then sinking the FTs. With 42 seconds left and down 90-89, Pierce drives on Kidd who blatantly flops and drags Pierce down to create the illusion of a charge. The refs donâ€™t take the bait. Pierce makes both FTs and Boston has its first lead since 1-0. Itâ€™s at this point that the Fleet Center explodes in euphoria having already been on the verge for the whole quarter. Boston makes 3 more FTs to seal the game 94-90.
In the end Boston, scored 41 points to NJâ€™s 16 in the fourth. Pierce single-handedly outscored the Nets with 19 points. Perhaps the Celtics celebrated this victory too hard. They would lose the series 4-2 and begin a regression that by the mid part of the decade would find the franchise meandering in a malaise akin to the late 90s and would have people wondering whether Pierce was just a good player able to pad his stats into greatness. Winning the 2008 Finals MVP has put that all to rest, but don’t forget that Pierce was truly great before the arrival of Kevin and Ray.