Pierce works on perfecting mind game

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports

MIAMI – He's 32 years old now and, yes, on some nights in the grind of the NBA season, his body likely feels another 15 years older. Paul Pierce(notes) admits he has had to learn to pace himself, to pick his spots when he once again can become one of the league's most feared scorers.

Fortunately for the Boston Celtics, Pierce picked a good night to be his old self Friday. He scored the last of his 32 points on a 21-foot jump shot at the buzzer to give the Celtics a 100-98 victory over the Miami Heat and a commanding 3-0 series lead.

While much has been made about Kevin Garnett's(notes) knee issues, it often has gone overlooked how much this season also has worn on Pierce.

"That's what I do night in and night out, just try to figure out what role I'm going to play that night," Pierce said. "It can't always be my scoring where I'm going to have big scoring nights. Those days are over with putting the ball on my shoulders to go out there and score 30 every given night. I just try to pick my spots and give the game what I felt like it needs.

"Tonight, I felt like it needed my scoring. I felt that. We were on the road. I started being a little more aggressive and it paid off."

In the Celtics' storied legacy, only Larry Bird and John Havlicek were more accomplished scorers than Pierce.

He also carried the Celtics through several lean years before leading Boston to the 2008 title when he was named the NBA Finals' MVP.

All that heavy lifting appeared to catch up to Pierce this season. He missed 11 games with a swollen right knee that needed draining and a strained left foot. Looking back, he now wishes he'd also skipped the All-Star weekend. By the end of the season, his scoring average had dropped to 18.3 points, the lowest since his rookie season. The hits kept coming, too: In the opening game of this playoff series, he dropped to the floor with a stinger to his right shoulder.

"This has been one of my more trying seasons, to tell you the truth," Pierce said. "I've never been injured this much in my career. I had surgery. It just felt like it was coming back to back to back. … After the knee surgery, then it was a sprained ankle, right after that, a sprained thumb. It was really trying because I'm not used to playing with a lot of injuries. At this point in my career at this age, I don't heal as quickly as I used to heal. I've learned a lot about myself and my body this year.

"If I go through these types of situations, these types of injuries, I just get more rest because I'm not the 24-year-old, 25-year-old Paul Pierce who can bounce back as quick. I just have to allow myself to heal."

Prior to Friday, Pierce had totaled just 29 points in the series and generated only one headline moment. After his shoulder stinger forced Pierce to the court, Garnett tried to clear Quentin Richardson(notes) away from Pierce and elbowed him. Richardson later called Pierce an "actress," insinuating the injury wasn't that significant.

"Obviously, my scoring has been down," Pierce said. "I've tried to do other things and bring to the game what the game needs that day. Obviously, I didn't need to score 30 points in Game 1 or Game 2. I had to do the intangibles to help my team win."

All but 10 of Pierce's points came in the second half. He tied the game with a 3-pointer with 1:42 remaining. After a missed 3-pointer by Miami star Dwyane Wade(notes), the Celtics got the ball back with 11.7 seconds left. Celtics coach Doc Rivers had several options he could have gone to while using a lineup containing Pierce, Garnett, Ray Allen(notes), Rajon Rondo(notes) and Michael Finley(notes). He chose Pierce.

"The play was for Paul, but we wanted activity," Rivers said, "And we thought if we could get a flare for Ray it would allow Paul to go to his right, which is what happened. He waited a long time."

With the clock racing down, Pierce took Miami's Dorell Wright(notes) off the dribble to the right elbow of the lane then buried the shot. Pierce's last buzzer-beater came in Game 5 of last year's first-round series against the Chicago Bulls.

Wade had been poised to play the hero, but was forced to the sideline for the Celtics' final possession with cramps. Pierce then stole the show.

"We told him last shot, but I do not know if we meant it to that extent," Rivers said. "I was not sure if he got it off when he first shot."

Said Pierce: "I wanted to leave no time on the clock. When I looked up, there was two seconds. I just decided to go to my move and make my shot. I got a little space. I got to my sweet spot on the right elbow and I had a good look with no time."

If the Celtics have any hope of surviving the Eastern Conference playoffs, Pierce will need to have similar moments. LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers could be their possible second-round opponent. And if the Celtics can sweep the Heat on Sunday, it will give Pierce the one thing he has learned to value this season: rest.

"We're an older team," Pierce said. "Sometimes we need that rest. I think we learned a lot from the last couple of years, maybe so much that we get out to a 2-0 lead and you can't just get comfortable. We can't just get comfortable. It's still a series."

True. But thanks to Pierce, it's a lot more comfortable for the Celtics now than it was before Friday.