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Thursday, January 24, 2013
Wayward Pierce sinks Celtics again

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- It's one thing for Paul Pierce to miss shots. He's done plenty of that while laboring through a five-game shooting slump. But to flat-out pass up open looks? That's proof that Pierce just isn't himself at the moment.

Pierce scored a season-high 19 first-half points on Thursday night against the New York Knicks, but put up only three second-half shots -- missing them all -- while scoring a mere three points after the intermission as the Boston Celtics fell 89-86 at TD Garden.

Pierce, battling a terrible shooting slump, connected on 6 of 15 shots overall, but it wasn't the fact that he missed nine attempts; it was the fact that he passed up open looks in key moments and then let the game slip away with a turnover on the Celtics' final possession as the Knicks escaped with their first win in Boston since 2006.

With the Celtics down 84-82 with little more than two minutes to go, a driving Avery Bradley kicked to Pierce at the top of the key. Pierce, 0-for-12 over the past five games from beyond the top of the arc, elected to get a charging Jason Kidd in the air with a pump fake, then stepped up to his elbow sweet spot. Even with a triangle of defenders including Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith in front of him, Pierce had space to get up a shot. Instead, he kicked to Avery Bradley, who missed a corner 3 that would have given Boston the lead.

Paul Pierce
Paul Pierce came unglued with the game on the line.

"I'm taking the Paul shot," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Nothing against Avery, but Paul Pierce wide open at the elbow? He turned into Kevin Garnett for one play, where you want him to shoot and he makes the pass. You can't fault him for moving the ball."

Yes, that was somewhat excusable. What happened soon after wasn't quite so easy to swallow.

With New York out front 89-84 with 66 seconds to play, Pierce inbounded to Jason Terry, then circled back out to take a handoff. Improbably, the ball popped loose and tumbled out of bounds.

Boston's defense got it back and, after a Rondo jumper made it a one-possession game again at 89-86, Boston got a chance to tie with 13.1 seconds remaining. This time Pierce tried to cut from the left wing, but got snagged a bit on J.R. Smith. A Rondo feed ticked off his hands as Pierce couldn't get the handle, eventually kicking it out of bounds in front of the Knicks' bench.

New York ran out the clock from there, snapping a 13-game losing streak (regular season and playoffs) at TD Garden. The Knicks now own a seven-game lead over Boston in the Atlantic Division.

"Down the stretch, we had poor execution. Simple and plain," Pierce said. "You know when you need buckets, when the game is tight, you can't turn the ball over. You know and that's what we did down the stretch."

Honing in on the final offensive sequence, Pierce noted, "The play was broken up and I tried to flash to the ball. I really didn't get a good hand on it and J.R. made a good stab at the ball and it resulted in a turnover."

Maybe the most maddening part of the two turnovers was that Pierce had similar issues in a clutch situation during Boston's last home game on Friday against the Bulls.

Receiving the ball on the left wing with a chance to draw a foul and salt away the win, Pierce instead got trapped and Chicago forced a jump ball. The Bulls won the jump, hit a shot that forced an extra session, and got another big shot to win it at the end of overtime.

Over his past five games, Pierce is shooting a mere 32.9 percent (24-of-73) and 15 percent beyond the 3-point arc (3-of-20). What's more, Pierce is minus-23 overall as Boston (20-22) has dropped all five games to fall two games under .500.

Even with those struggles, Pierce was in the mix for a spot with the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves, but did not get voted in by coaches' vote on Thursday. It's only the second time in the past 12 years that he's been passed up for the midseason exhibition (the other being an injury plagued 2006-07 season).

Pierce took the high road, noting, "You knew eventually that day was going to come. You have a lot of young, great players in this league that have really stepped up this year. And they are all well-deserving."

Rivers admitted his team didn't do Pierce any favors with its lackluster record, particularly after Rondo and Kevin Garnett were voted starters by the fans.

Paul Pierce, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert
Paul Pierce started strong Thursday vs. the Knicks but couldn't stay on track in the second half.

"Our record had a lot to do with it," Rivers said. "[Pierce] played well enough to make it. But listen, we're two games under .500, and we already have two guys on the All-Star team. I think the coaching bylaws say we can't put three guys on, so that's probably the reason."

Pierce knows he didn't help his own case with his recent play. An increasingly anemic Celtics offense still leans hard on Pierce to shoulder the scoring load, even at age 35. Confidence has rarely been an issue for Pierce, but it's somewhat concerning that he's passing up shots and committing head-shaking mistakes in clutch situations.

If nothing else, the captain just isn't right.

Pierce, Boston's team leader in minutes played, will get some much-deserved rest during the All-Star break, but there's still three weeks and 10 games to be played before the NBA's February vacation.

Even as he tries to pull himself out of his personal slump -- and Boston out of its downward plunge -- Pierce remains unwaveringly optimistic this team will get its act together.

"We've seen a lot of positive things," Pierce said. "If our offense right now could catch up with our defense, we'd be a whole lot better. We've improved throughout the year, defensively, to get to where we want to be. But our offense has to do a better job.

"We gotta finish off these last few games before the All-Star break. There's 40 games left, still a lot of season. We believe we can climb back in this division race."

One thing is clear: In order for Boston to get on course, it needs its captain to get himself right and steer this wayward ship.