Paul Pierce keeps playing closer

BOSTON -- Finally, more than halfway through the truncated 2011-12 season, we have an actual, honest-to-goodness Atlantic Division Showdown on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

That's right, folks. The Boston Celtics can take over first place in the division (by percentage points) with a win against the 76ers, who have been the standard bearer all season. But Philly has conveniently dropped back, having lost eight of 10, and the Celtics now have won five in a row, matching their season high, after Tuesday night's chaotic, 97-92 overtime victory over the Houston Rockets.

A reality check, if you will. A former Celtics assistant coach, Jon Jennings, used to have a phrase for games like the one in Philadelphia, which now pits an old team coming off an overtime win and having to play the second of back-to-back games on the road against a younger, hungrier team that had the night off. He called them "schedule losses."

But before we hang the crepe on Wednesday's game, the question must be asked: How did the Celtics even win this one to set up the showdown? You can be sure the same question is being asked in Houston.

"That was a crazy game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "The whole game. It wasn't even just the ending. There were some strange things going on."

Indeed there were.

The Celtics were hammered on the glass (57-38) and surrendered 14 offensive rebounds. But Houston managed to turn those 14 extra opportunities into only 12 points. The Celtics coughed up 17 points off turnovers. The Rockets gave away 20. The Celtics had Greg Stiemsma (8 valuable points in the first half.)

Rajon Rondo had an uncontested, breakaway layup to seal the win in regulation -- and fumbled the ball on his way to the hoop, never even getting the ball to the rim. All of his 9 points came in the first quarter -- and he played 45 minutes. Avery Bradley had a near air-ball from 3 feet. Ray Allen missed a free throw. Kevin Garnett missed two in OT. Paul Pierce was nailed for an 8-second violation in overtime.

But here's the real head-scratcher of the night. When the game was on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime, Doc Rivers made sure his leading scorer, Pierce, was in the game. Houston coach Kevin McHale, meanwhile, made sure his leading scorer, Kevin Martin, was on the bench, spectating for the final 20 minutes, 37 seconds of a close game, even as the Rockets went 2-of-16 down the stretch, blowing a 10-point lead in the final 5:33 of regulation.

Amazingly, that does not constitute news in Houston. McHale has done it before and not just with Martin. But in a game that cried for a scorer on both sides, the Celtics had Pierce, who finished with 30 points and countless other big plays in the fourth quarter and particularly in overtime. That was the difference.

He was vocal in the huddle during timeouts. He was egging on the capacity crowd with hand clapping. And he came through in overtime, nearly outscoring the Rockets all by himself (7 points to Houston's 8.)

"I was trying to give us some life, especially in the fourth quarter," he said. "Some way, somehow, we had to figure it out and some way, somehow, we got the energy to put it over the top.

"It wasn't pretty, but we got it done," Pierce went on. "Once we got to the fourth quarter, we picked up our intensity, we played with more of a sense of urgency, got more life out of ourselves and into the building and we were able to take control."

Pierce was an ultra-efficient 2-of-2 from the field and 3-of-3 from the line in extra innings. He converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 3:21 left in OT to give the Celtics a 91-86 lead. After Houston pulled to within 91-90, he got Goran Dragic to bite on a fake and made two free throws. (He was 11-of-12 from the line.)

After another Kyle Lowry hoop, Pierce drove baseline for a banked scoop shot. He then fed Garnett for what should have been two more points from the line. (Oops.) He rebounded a Lowry miss in the final minute with the Celtics nursing a three-point lead and then committed the eight-second violation (oops, but he was hounded by Lowry.) He redeemed himself almost immediately, getting credit for a steal when Lowry lost the ball on the Rockets' next possession.

Asked if he thought Pierce might have been overdoing it a bit, Rivers said, "Yeah. He really was. He had a tough stretch. But he also had a winning stretch. He was terrific, made good plays, made a couple good passes, too, and good decisions. So that was good.

The Celtics also got a lift from Allen down the stretch and in OT, but it was Pierce who pretty much willed this one into the W column. Now, they get a chance to take over first place for the first time this season, a position that looked near unattainable not too long ago.

Longtime Celtics writer Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.