Commentary

The Truth hurts (and 76ers know it)

With Pierce playing on one leg, Celtics need someone else to deliver in the clutch

Updated: May 16, 2012, 11:03 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

Before Game 2 of this second-round Boston-Philly series, Sixers coach Doug Collins noted that while most people focus on the Celtics' proficient defense, it was their offense that he spent time studying, because they take among the fewest shots in the NBA, yet register one of the highest assists-to-baskets ratios.

"So the question becomes," Collins said, "can you take away some of their efficiency?"

Well, sure you can -- especially when the Celtics are complicit in allowing that to happen by making such poor offensive decisions, as they did in the 82-81 Game 2 defeat Monday night.

[+] EnlargeIguodala & Pierce
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireAndre Iguodala has done a good job shutting down Paul Pierce, but the knee injury has prevented the Celtics forward from creating separation.

Feel free to moan all you like about the foul whistled on Kevin Garnett's screen with 10 seconds to play, but KG admitted he was warned by the officials beforehand. That is not why the Celtics lost the basketball game.

They lost it because Garnett had taken only three shots by halftime. The lost it because Brandon Bass had taken 12 shots by the break -- almost twice as many as any other Boston player -- and missed nine of them.

In a row, by the way.

They lost it because in the fourth quarter, one possession after Ray Allen nailed a clutch 3-pointer over the outstretched hand of Jrue Holiday with 1:40 to go in the game (and after Boston forced a 24-second violation on the other end), Rajon Rondo ignored Allen curling off a screen not once but twice so he could ... back-rim a 17-footer with two players in his grill?

When queried on what he was hoping to accomplish with that possession, Rondo conceded afterward, "I don't even know."

Hey, it's been wonderful that Rondo has found some rhythm in his perimeter game. Without him converting those open jumpers in Game 1, the Celtics would have been toast.

But when it comes to game-winners, the choice of Ray (7-for-14 in the game) or Rajon (4-for-12) is obvious. Rondo knows this. His strength is creating opportunities for players like KG and Allen. His unwillingness to give Ray the ball in that situation is curious at best.

Battie I know he's hurt. but Paul's definitely not going to ever admit that to anyone. You can see it. His shot is a little flat. His knee is bothering him, and he's had some foot problems, and his lift isn't 100 percent. But he's still the heart and soul of that team.

-- Sixers reserve Tony Battie

Not surprisingly, Allen noted in his postgame comments, "Offensively, I don't think we shared the ball enough to win."

Of course, we all know the real reason that Boston struggled to score 81 points Monday: its true scorer, its professional offensive assassin, the obvious choice to manufacture a big-time bucket, is ailing.

Paul Pierce is playing on a sprained medial collateral ligament. He cannot generate any lift, the trajectory of his shot is flat and he has difficulty maneuvering to the basket.

The Celtics' sniper has lost his mark, and it's killing them.

Don't expect any excuses from the captain. While Allen talks openly about the floating bone spurs that leave him in excruciating pain and Mickael Pietrus reveals that he will need offseason surgery to repair his tattered knee, Pierce refuses to discuss his own personal injury battle.

He ditched his knee brace for Game 2, then suffered through a 2-for-9 outing that included no baskets in the final quarter, a time frame that so often belongs to him.

As he walked out of the Garden on Monday night, I saddled up next to him and offered, "It's got to be frustrating."

"I don't know what you mean," he said, in uncharacteristically brusque fashion.

"Your knee," I said. "It's limiting you ... "

"There's nothing wrong with my knee," he said.

The Truth was lying, and I don't blame him. He knows what it's like when an opponent is hobbling. Once a team smells blood, it converges on the perceived weak link and exploits him. The Sixers are attacking Pierce with regularity, and his efforts on the defensive end, which have often included hopping -- instead of sliding -- from side to side, have been admirable.

His tomahawk block of a Lou Williams jumper in the final minutes would have gotten far more play had Lavoy Allen not then converted a desperation bank shot 3-pointer with 0.9 on the shot clock to salvage the possession.

Former Celtic Tony Battie, now a veteran bench player for the Sixers, has been friends with Pierce for over 10 years.

"I know he's hurt," Battie said, "but Paul's definitely not going to ever admit that to anyone.

"You can see it. His shot is a little flat. His knee is bothering him, and he's had some foot problems, and his lift isn't 100 percent.

"But he's still the heart and soul of that team. We know Paul. We know he can get it going. I don't put it past him to come out with a Willis Reed-type Herculean effort in the next game."

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Battie could be right. Consider Game 1, when Pierce was struggling so mightily his coach actually considered removing him in the fourth quarter. But Doc Rivers knew at worst Pierce would serve as a decoy that would have to be respected, and at best The Truth would find a way to coax in one more shot. The latter occurred, and Boston went on to win.

Veteran Sixers forward Elton Brand knows all about injuries. He ruptured his Achilles tendon and battled through painful shoulder, knee and neck maladies. He's acutely aware of how exhausting it is both mentally and physically to fight through the pain.

"You lose your aggression," Brand said. "When it hurts, that's what happens. Half the time it's subconscious. You have trouble with your movement and your thrust and it's just harder to attack when all that is going on.

"But I know what kind of player [Pierce] is. He's going to keep coming. He's not going to quit."

Aside from Pierce's diminished state, it's necessary to dish some praise Andre Iguodala's way. Iggy is an All-Star defender who has done an excellent job of preventing Pierce from creating the separation that is so critical to his success as an offensive force. Iguodala is also putting tremendous pressure on Pierce on the defensive end with his own aggressive forays to the basket.

But let's get real: When a healthy Pierce gets going, Iguodala can't stop him. Nobody can.

As the Celtics prepare for Game 3, they'd be wise to thrust their offensive focus back on Garnett, who was a very efficient 7-of-12 from the floor in Game 2. The Sixers attempted to negate some of his length by assigning 7-foot Spencer Hawes to him, but as Collins acknowledged earlier in the series, KG's length enables him to shoot over almost anybody. He needs to establish deep position in the post. The Sixers will likely bring the double-team, but Garnett is a fine passing big man, as he demonstrated in the fourth quarter by receiving the ball in the paint, waiting for the double, then hitting a wide-open Avery Bradley on the weak side for a layup.

Pierce will gamely give it his best shot in Game 3, and who knows? Maybe he'll manufacture a little rhythm. He is shooting a woeful 25 percent in the series (5-for-20) and 1-for-6 from the 3-point line, but the numbers have rarely mattered with him. He can shoot 30 percent one night and go for 30 the next.

He often compensates for an off shooting night by getting to the line. In Game 1, he was 8-for-8 on free throws. In Game 2, he got to the line only twice, a point of emphasis for Philly.

"What we're trying to do with Pierce is knock him off his path," Evan Turner said. "Get him away from his comfort spots.

"I don't know if he's hurt. But one thing I do know: That guy has big cojones. We don't want him to feel good about one single shot."

The pressure is squarely on the Celtics now as they move to Philadelphia tied 1-1, having punted home-court advantage. We've always said no one craves that pressure more than Paul Pierce.

But that was when he had two good legs.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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