Pierce leads Rondo-less Celtics past Hawks, 87-80
By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) Maybe they'll start calling it Piercing.
Paul Pierce certainly ripped apart the Atlanta Hawks.
Almost single-handedly, Pierce wiped out an 11-point deficit in the second half, scoring 36 points to carry the Boston Celtics to a stunning 87-80 win Tuesday night in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, even with Rajon Rondo serving a suspension and Ray Allen sidelined again by an ailing ankle.
"The only way we were going to win a game like this without Ray and Rondo," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "was if Paul had a game like this."
He also had a game-high 14 rebounds and, for good measure, threw in some Tebowing.
After making a couple of foul shots with just over a minute remaining to clinch it, Pierce paused on his way back to the bench to copy the move named after NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, sinking to a knee and bowing his head for a brief prayer in the middle of the court.
"It wasn't pre-scripted," Pierce said. "It just came to me."
Boston heads home for Game 3 on Friday night tied 1-1. Rondo will be back for the Celtics in that one, his short-handed team having claimed the home-court edge while he sat out as punishment for bumping an official in the opener.
Pierce made sure the stellar point guard wasn't missed, outscoring the Hawks all by himself over the last 15:08.
"I have a lot of experience, a lot of confidence from being in those moments," Pierce said. "You believe in yourself, your coach believes in you, your team believes in you, it's a combination of all those things."
Pierce scored Boston's first nine points but struggled mightily through the second and third quarters. He came through when the Celtics really needed him, especially with the Rondo-less offense a bit out of sync and Allen watching from the bench in a suit rather than a uniform.
Down the stretch, the Celtics simplified things: Give the ball to Pierce and get out of the way.
"With Rondo being out, I knew I had to step up my scoring," said Pierce, who had only 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting in Game 1. "Everybody that played tonight contributed. That took a lot of pressure off me defensively so I could be more aggressive on the offensive end. It was a team win. I can't take all the credit."
The Hawks appeared to be in control when they pushed out to a 65-54 lead late in the third quarter. From that point, Pierce outscored the Hawks all by himself, 18-15, including 13 points in the final quarter.
"We expected him to come out and be aggressive offensively," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "He got going early."
The Celtics were up 74-72 when a quick spurt essentially finished the Hawks, especially when Josh Smith went out late in the game with a sprained left knee.
Joe Johnson turned it over, part of another tough game for the Hawks star, sparking a fast break that ended with a give-and-go from Avery Bradley to Pierce for a dunk. After Jeff Teague missed badly on a jumper, Pierce came down and hit his first 3-pointer of the series after missing his first 10, stretching the lead to 79-72 with 3 1/2 minutes left.
Smith had 16 points and 12 rebounds before he went out for good with 4:20 remaining, the state of his knee now becoming a major concern for the Hawks, who already have played most of the season without Al Horford.
"He is one of our go-to guys down the stretch," Drew said. "We were missing all of the things he brings to the table for us, especially down low."
Smith will be re-evaluated Wednesday. The Hawks surely can't afford to lose him, too.
"It was tough because he's one of our best players," Teague said. "It was a little different out there because we didn't have any flow. One person goes down, somebody had to step up."
Kevin Garnett had 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Bradley, who shifted over to take Rondo's spot at the point, chipped in with 14 points but only three assists - a far cry from what the Celtics usually get out of that position.
Johnson had 22 points for Atlanta but never got many open looks, hitting just 7 of 17 from the field.
He had plenty of company in that dreadful fourth quarter. The Hawks made just 4 of 19 shots, missing all four of their 3-point attempts. They also turned it over five times.
"Those guys made it tough for us down the stretch," Atlanta's Willie Green said. "But we're not going to hang our heads at all. Tough loss, but that's what the playoffs are about. Now we have a chance to go up there and get one."
The game definitely appeared to be going the Hawks' way by the third quarter. When Smith tried to pass the ball inside, Boston's Greg Stiemsma got a hand on it, but the ball deflected into the corner - right to a wide-open Johnson, standing behind the arc. With no one around, he swished the 3 to push the Hawks to their 65-54 advantage.
The Celtics, meanwhile, were struggling to do anything right. When they botched a three-on-one break and gave up a layup at the other end, Rivers stormed out of his seat and signaled for a timeout. He was so mad he didn't even want to stand near his players as they trudged to the bench, remaining out near the foul line until he regained his composure.
Thanks to Pierce, the coach felt a lot better by the end.
Notes: Teague scored 18 points but went 0 for 4 in the final quarter. ... The Hawks shot just 35 percent (29 of 83). ... Boston held a 45-40 edge on the boards, even while collecting just three rebounds at the offensive end.
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Updated May 2, 2012