After the combination of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and the defensive efforts of the Philadelphia 76ers (and primarily Andre Iguodala) had him looking less than his best in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Paul Pierce came into Wednesday night's Game 3 bent on attacking. He'd managed just 20 field-goal attempts through two games against Philly after averaging better than 16 a night in Boston's six-game opening-round win over the Atlanta Hawks, and the Celtics' captain was determined to ratchet that number up with the series tied at one game apiece.
"I just wanted to be aggressive, regardless," Pierce told reporters (including Frank Dell'Apa of the Boston Globe) after the game. "Everything I do was going to be aggressive, and that's it. When I'm getting limited to nine shots in a game, that's not me."
Exploding for dunks on consecutive possessions isn't really Pierce, either, or at least, it isn't anymore — he threw it down just 20 times in nearly 2,100 minutes during the regular season, according to CBSSports.com's Dunk-O-Meter — but late in the first quarter, that's precisely what happened.
Those post-dunk playground yawps carried within them the frustration of a combined 5-for-26 shooting mark through the first 107 minutes of this series, including an 0-for-6 start to Game 3 through which Pierce continued to fight. Releasing that kind of tension must feel pretty good; sometimes it feels really great to hit the space bar on my laptop super hard after struggling to find the right word in a post, so I think I know exactly how Pierce felt here.
Pierce breaking through that Sixers defense late in the first to finish strong twice in a row after two games of continual frustration — he'd managed just four total attempts at the rim in Game 1 and Game 2 combined, according to Hoopdata's shot location stats, and converted just one of them — seemed to energize the Celtics, who ripped off a 17-4 run to open the second quarter and outscored Philly 32-16 in that frame to head into half with a 60-49 lead they would never relinquish. Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo were sensational, as KD wrote late Wednesday night, but Pierce's dunks exorcised some of the defensive demons Boston faced in Games 1 and 2, opening the door for the offensive onslaught that followed.
But while the floodgates opened for Boston, with the Celtics riding the wave to a 107-91 rout that wasn't as close as the final indicated, things didn't flow so easily for Pierce. He took nine more shots after those two dunks and missed five of them; his 6-for-17 shooting line, while a vast improvement over Games 1 and 2, wasn't exactly world-shaking. Still, the sum of Pierce's Game 3 was exactly the kind of performance we've come to expect from the 14-year veteran.
Twenty-four points, a total built largely on the back of 13 trips to the foul line. Twelve rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, where he followed his early misses and refused to let the Sixers defense deter his approach. Four assists, three steals and zero turnovers, a floor game that helped extend Boston's lead when he wasn't scoring. It was a 37-minute example of the kind of imposition of will for which Pierce has become known, a style of play that breaks opponents not through a single moment of sheer brute force, but rather through the aggregate effects of steady, relentless crashing.
More than maybe any other player of his generation, Paul Pierce is erosion. And while Game 3 against Philly wasn't a command performance on the level of Game 2 against Atlanta, as grind-it-out Paul Pierce games go, it wasn't bad at all, and it helped Boston regain home-court advantage in the second round.