Paul Pierce must be the man in Game 2 if the Celtics are to salvage a split. (Getty Images)
Doc Rivers will have to juggle his lineup a bit for Game 2 of the Boston Celtics' first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night, thanks to the NBA handing starting point guard Rajon Rondo a one-game suspension as punishment for the All-Star's chest-bump of referee Marc Davis late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 83-74 Game 1 loss.
With Rondo unavailable and Ray Allen again a game-time decision due to his injured right ankle, Rivers will insert reserve swingman Mickael Pietrus into the starting lineup at shooting guard and slide second-year pro Avery Bradley down to the point, according to Paul Flannery of WEEI.com:
With Rondo out, the Celtics anticipate the Hawks will try to pressure Bradley.
"We're going to have to help him," Rivers said. "He has improved, obviously at that position but he's more comfortable at the other position. Paul [Pierce] will have to do some ballhandling duties to help out. We anticipate them pressuring him — that's what they do, to try and speed Avery up, and we can't allow that."
For the Celtics to win, Pierce is probably going to have to assume more than "some ballhandling duties," and he's probably going to have to do more than "help out."
He's going to have to control the pace and flow of the game, dominate the action and perform at least as well as he did in the second half of the season for Boston, when he averaged a tick under 21 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists a night, posted a 46/37/88 shooting percentage slash line and helped spur the Celtics to the league's best post-All-Star break record. He's going to have to be the best player on the floor for the Celtics — not just the best scorer, but their best option overall.
Pierce, like every other member of the Celtics not named Rajon Rondo, struggled mightily in Game 1 at Philips Arena. With Allen out and Kevin Garnett looking sluggish and lacking lift on his jumper in the early going Sunday, Boston needed Pierce's offense to carry them through the fallow period, but the team's leading scorer couldn't deliver. He missed 3 of 4 shots in the first quarter, committing two fouls and turning the ball over on a charge as Atlanta came out firing to put Boston down 13 after 12 minutes. He bounced back with seven points in the second quarter, but went cold in the second half, missing 14 of his 19 field-goal attempts for the game, including all six of his long-distance tries. Perhaps most indicative of his struggles, Pierce got to the free-throw line just three times in nearly 42 minutes of action.
Without Rondo and without Allen, there's just no way the Celtics can afford another night where Pierce misses three-quarters of his shots (and, for all intents and purposes, three quarters in the game). He has to score Tuesday night. Beyond that, though, he also has to orchestrate and distribute, and he must do so at an elite level.
Bradley played point in his lone collegiate year at Texas and in very limited backup minutes in Boston as a rookie last year, and heading into this season's final month, had played about 28 percent of the team's minutes at the one-spot, according to 82games.com's positional data. But he has primarily thrived off the ball in his second season, developing from a one-dimensional contributor capable of providing tenacious on-ball defense but not much else into a deft cutter in Boston's half-court game and, late in the season, even a sharp shot on the corner three, hitting 20 of 36 attempts from the short corners, according to NBA.com.
If assuming primary ballhandling responsibilities throughout the game weakens Bradley's impact in those areas — especially on the defensive end, where his activity will be critical in limiting the likes of Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague — then the move could compound Boston's lineup problems rather than solve them. And while Keyon Dooling — nominally the C's backup point, if you go by the depth chart — is a veteran who can still defend, hit jumpers and offer an at-times steady hand in short minutes, he's unlikely to be the answer that will send the Celtics back to Boston knotted at one-up.
No, the answer's going to have to come from Pierce, as has been the case pretty much without exception for the past 14 years. Not just by default, but because in the absence of Rondo, he's been easily the best de-facto point man the Celtics have this season.
Rondo missed 13 games this season; the Celtics went 8-5 without him. Pierce played in 12 of those games, missing only an April 20 loss to the Hawks in which Rivers sat Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in a defeat that wound up securing home-court advantage for Atlanta. While he still played his customary small forward position, Pierce largely dominated the ball in those games, taking over possessions to get Boston's mish-mash of bodies in the right places in Rivers' sets, then orchestrating the offense or, when it was time, calling his own number.
By and large, he did it well. In contests in which Pierce played and Rondo didn't, Boston's captain averaged 21 points on 48.8 percent shooting, 7.1 assists (with 3.9 turnovers) and 5.3 rebounds per game, posting a team-high in helpers nine times.
In the eight wins, Pierce was absolutely stellar, averaging 22.3 points on 50 percent shooting, eight assists, 3.8 turnovers, 5.8 rebounds. And as Anthony Bruzzese noted at Celticsblog, the numbers get even better if you drop off the Celtics' win over the Miami Heat in the season's final week, a glorified scrimmage that saw Pierce play just 18 minutes as Garnett, Allen, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all sat.
In the four losses, though, Pierce was merely very good rather than excellent, averaging fewer points (18.3) on less accurate shoooting (46.3 percent), fewer assists (5.3), more turnovers (4.3) and fewer rebounds (4.5).
All of which is to say: Paul Pierce can't just play well Tuesday night. He's going have to play at his absolute highest level for the Boston Celtics to avoid a two-game hole; Pierce has to be elite just to make Boston's offense run on time.
Without Rondo, only Pierce can (to some degree) replicate the point guard's ability to beat his man, gain the lane, collapse the defense and maximize the value of floor-spacing shooters like Garnett a step inside the arc, Bradley and Pietrus in the corners, or Brandon Bass at the elbow. Only Pierce is gifted enough to be able to create his own offense one-on-one if Atlanta's quick, swarming defense shuts off the other options. And if Garnett is once again summarily beaten on both ends of the floor by a version of Josh Smith better than any the Celtics have faced before, only Pierce can take over the game and hold on long enough to escape Atlanta with a win.
Rondo was the Celtics' best player in the opener, scoring 20 points on 10-of-18 shooting and handing out 11 assists to just one turnover in 43 minutes before getting ejected; without Rondo, that role has to fall to Pierce. He's going to have to be the motherflippin' Truth, because he's the only Celtic who can, and because anything less means Boston goes home staring down the barrel of an 0-2 deficit.
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