Ballgame. (Brian Babineau/NBA/Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Clippers had roared back from a 19-point halftime deficit against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, riding a monster second half from the backcourt duo of Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford (37 total points on 14 for 23 shooting, nine assists and four steals after intermission) and some cold Boston shooting (just 5 for 14 from the floor in the fourth) all the way back to contention. A 15-3 mid-fourth run brought the Clippers within three with just over three minutes left, and a Bledsoe 3-pointer cut Boston's lead to 103-101 with 56.3 seconds left.
That final minute would come down to which team's playmakers could finish the job. First, for the Celtics, it was defensive stopper Avery Bradley, getting into Crawford's chest and drawing an offensive foul as the Clippers sixth man looked for an equalizer. Then, with the clock winding down, as it's been so many times, it was Paul Pierce:
Thanks for playing, Matt Barnes. Everyone drive home safely.
Pierce's step-back triple fell through the net with 2.5 seconds remaining, putting the Celtics up five; a last-second Crawford 3 established the final margin of victory, 106-104, for Boston's fourth straight win since Rajon Rondo's season-ending ACL tear and their second W since losing rookie Jared Sullinger for the year to a back injury.
With the injury-depleted Celtics in need of more, well, everything these days, Pierce has stepped his all-around game up over the past week, averaging 17.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game during Boston's four-game winning streak and, as Kevin Garnett said after the game, reasserting his primacy as the Celtics' captain and leader, according to ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg:
"He's the original Celtic and we go how he goes," Garnett said. "And nights when he's not going, we try to obviously support him and help him. But this is Truth's house, and there's never been a misunderstanding since I've been here. We have all the trust in the world in him."
And, apparently, despite having 15 years of evidence that an end-game Pierce possession is going to end with a step-back jumper, the Clippers didn't have an appropriate level of fear, as SB Nation's Paul Flannery wrote:
The Clippers should have fouled. Down two points with 26.7 seconds left on the clock, they elected to allow the Celtics to run the clock down and left themselves at the mercy of a Paul Pierce contested three that put the game away. [...]
But it didn't have to come down to that. The Clippers could have forced the issue. They could have pressured Courtney Lee who brought the ball up the court -- they almost got a turnover -- or they could have fouled Lee, who is an 88 percent free throw shooter but on only 42 attempts this season.
Instead they let it play out and they got burned. It makes no sense for a team who lives on creating chaos and has shotmakers like Jamal Crawford to give up that advantage, but that's what they did. Kevin Garnett was asked if he was surprised the Clippers didn't foul. "A little bit," he said. "But I don't know their game plan and what they were thinking, so that's on them."
Their game plan, as Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, was to let long-limbed and tenacious perimeter defender Barnes go man-up on Pierce and hope for the best:
When asked whether he had considered having someone foul Pierce to extend the game, Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said he did not.
Instead, Pierce dribbled almost every second off the 24-second clock before delivering the dagger.
"You play the percentages," Del Negro said. "We went back and forth with it. We just felt we could get it done."
But they didn't, and the result was the Clippers' fifth loss in their last seven games, all of which have been played without Chris Paul in the lineup as the All-Star point guard continues to rest his bruised right knee. Paul's absence has allowed more opportunity for Bledsoe to showcase his talents, and the 23-year-old third-year guard out of Kentucky had his best performance of that stretch on Sunday, leading the way with 23 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, two steals and just three turnovers in 38 minutes of work. But it wasn't enough, dropping the Clips four games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference, two games south of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 2 seed and cutting their Pacific Division lead over the streaking Golden State Warriors to just three games.
Pierce finished with 22 points on 7 for 16 shooting, five rebounds, four assists (albeit with six turnovers) and two steals in the win, with put Boston on the sunny side of .500 for the first time in more than two weeks. The bigger story, though, was the continued strong performance of the Boston bench, which turned in 52 points on just 26 field-goal attempts on Sunday, as Jason Terry (13 points, six assists), Jeff Green (14 points, two rebounds, two assists, two blocks) and Leandro Barbosa (14 points, including eight in the third quarter) came up big for coach Doc Rivers. Heck, even Jason Collins got in the mix, chipping in seven points in 11 minutes.
“We can’t forget: The bench has been good for four or five games before all the injuries,” Rivers said, according to Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe. “They were playing great and I was complaining about the starters. Now, the starters are playing as well as the bench. You can almost make that case, which is really nice.”
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