The Hawks couldn't slow Paul Pierce in Game 4, though a knee injury did.
The Boston Celtics entered Sunday's Game 4 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series knowing they could land a virtual knockout blow against the Atlanta Hawks. Only eight teams in NBA history have ever rallied from a 3-1 series deficit; teams with that commanding advantage have won 96 percent of all series since the 16-team playoff format began in the 1983-84 season.
Pierce had already logged heavy minutes over the previous two games of the series, carrying a short-handed Celtics team over 44 minutes in a 36-point, 14-rebound effort in a Game 2 triumph, then playing 47 minutes in Game 3's victory. Then he endured a left knee injury while simply walking through sets at the team's morning shootaround on Sunday, and his availability was thrust into question for Game 4.
Of course he suited up. Of course he thrived. That's what Paul Pierce does in the postseason (go ahead with your wheelchair quips, Lakers fans).
Pierce didn't just play injured; he aggravated the malady when he collided with Atlanta's Josh Smith midway through the second quarter on Sunday. Limited to a mere 16 minutes, 37 seconds of court time, Pierce still poured in a game-high 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
"He's a warrior," teammate Brandon Bass said. "Walk-through, he had a little injury, but he came out and played big for us. What can I say?"
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Bass wasn't the only one at a loss for words. Asked about Pierce's effort, Kevin Garnett was similarly succinct.
"Paul was in the zone today. Paul was in the zone. I have nothing else to say about that," Garnett said.
On one leg, Pierce was better than anyone on the Hawks -- though you could make the case that their own star, Josh Smith, was playing on one leg after returning from his own left knee injury, while Al Horford was playing for the first time in four months after enduring a torn pectoral in January.
Even still, Pierce was brilliant. He connected on five of seven shots in the first quarter alone, chipping in 10 points as Boston shot 66.7 percent from the floor in the frame and built a 13-point cushion.
Pierce was 8-of-11 for 18 points by the time he collided with Smith while chasing Joe Johnson off a double screen midway through the second quarter. Pierce crumpled to the floor and hobbled off to the locker room with team physician Dr. Brian McKeon in tow.
Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett hope the Celtics' celebrations continue deep into the playoffs.
He was back at the start of the second half and, though clearly hobbled, made a pair of what were essentially one-legged 3-pointers as Boston's lead ballooned as high as 37 and coach Doc Rivers yanked him after a mere 3:36.
Pierce spent some time on a courtside exercise bike -- it might as well have been a photo shoot as nearby fans rushed for close-ups -- but with the game in hand by the start of the fourth frame, he retreated to the locker room for treatment.
Pierce admitted if it had been a close game, he would have had no choice but to grind through the soreness. After all, you can't relent when your opponent is on the ropes.
"I would have probably had to suck it up," Pierce said. "You don't want to really sit down and let it get stiff, that's why I got on the bike there when I was out of the game, because if it stiffened up on me, I probably wouldn't have had a chance to come back. But if it was a close game, I probably wouldn't have even come out."
Pierce doesn't take anything for granted in the postseason, especially not at this advanced stage of his career. Heck, Pierce was in the trainer's room getting pregame treatment when his good friend Baron Davisendured a dislocated kneecap in a playoff win against the Miami Heat.
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Rivers held his breath when Pierce went to the ground at HealthPoint Sunday morning after tripping over a teammate's foot. The Celtics felt fortunate Pierce was simply able to suit up, given the run of injuries this postseason across the league.
An injury can change the complexion of a series. Just ask the Chicago Bulls.
"Fragile," Rivers said of how injuries can derail a season, pointing to the Celtics' failed title defense in 2008-09 without Kevin Garnett.
"You can never take one year for granted. I tell our young guys that every day, how fragile a season is for a team. It doesn't take much. It doesn't have to be an injury. It can be attitude, it can be anything that can sink a team."
An injury to Pierce would put Boston in a compromising spot. Instead, it's the Hawks who are feeling uncomfortable, up against those ropes and the Celtics not willing to let them off.
Pierce is hopeful his knee will respond well to treatment over the next couple days and he'll be on the court for Game 5. Rivers is taking a wait-and-see approach.
The Hawks probably know what to expect. Pierce will be out there looking for the knockout that could set the stage for a second-round series in the shadow of the Rocky statue in Philadelphia.
Well, assuming the Philadelphia 76ers don't let the Bulls off the ropes, either.