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True Grit

01.12.09 at 9:43 pm ET

There were about eight minutes left in the third quarter and the Celtics were down 10 when Paul Pierce knocked down a 3-pointer. OK, here it comes. The Celtics will make a stand. The Raptors answered. Pierce scored again. Toronto hit a 3.

It’s not going to happen. A split will have to suffice. That’s the price for playing everybody 40 minutes the day before. That’s the way it works in the NBA when the games pile on top of each other and the injuries mount and the practice time gets short. Or maybe it was just getting started.

Then Ray Allen pulled out a sweet reverse layup from his memory bank and Pierce made a couple of more shots. Brian Scalabrine hit a couple of corner 3’s. The Toronto lead was six, then it was four. Pierce was in that groove that he gets into sometimes when the game just slows down to a crawl and he has everybody on a string. Maybe he can pull it off? Maybe?

A couple of weeks ago Doc Rivers was talking about the stretch of games between Christmas and the All-Star break. He called it the dog days of the NBA season. The coach marveled at how well his team handled the stretch last season when their focus never wavered and they never conceded a thing. People worried back then that they were pushing too hard, sacrificing too much to win meaningless games no one would remember when the playoffs started.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this team showed that kind of toughness?

Pierce kept coming and coming. Much later Kevin Garnett would break into song when asked to describe Pierce’s night.

“Dun dun-dun-duh, dun dun dun. Dun du-du-dun! Dun du-dun.” The Superman theme for those not able to follow the transcription.

“Y’all need to start playing the Superman theme music when he’s going like that,” Garnett said. “This is Clark Kent right here, ladies and gentlemen. He was 13-for-26 tonight with 39 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Superman.” And 49 minutes. On a bruised knee.

The bench, that much maligned bench, started the fourth quarter with energy and resourcefulness. Eddie House made a couple of shots, Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis banged bodies around and Gabe Pruitt just played. The Garden was rocking and the tidal wave was about to hit. This is how they do it. This is how the Celtics win games. But the Raptors wouldn’t go away.

On and on it went, with Garnett playing Chris Bosh like he was making the first start of his career, not the 1,000th. The long stretch of games, the back-to-backs, the lack of rest, none of it mattered now. Not to Garnett. Not to any of them.

“Yesterday I told you guys that Bosh is to me if not the best, then one of the best power forwards in the game today,” Garnett said. “I told them I didn’t want any help or use any kind of energy on defense. When it came to Bosh, I didn’t want it.

“You see Paul going like he’s going, you let him take care of the buckets and I’ll try to take care of the defense.”

Garnett bodied up Bosh and made him uncomfortable. He reached deep into his bag of veteran tricks, mixing up his defenses like a hoops version of Bill Belichick. Anthony Parker got free on a switch and Garnett doubled back and stuffed him like he was back at Farragut.

The Celtics took command in the fourth quarter and it was over. Cue Gino, drive home safely.

And then it wasn’t. Pierce made one mistake when he missed the front end of two foul shots and the Raptors got one last chance to tie it when Andrea Bargnani hit a 3-pointer after a scramble for a loose ball. Overtime.

Pierce hit a couple of more shots to start the extra session. “Actually I feel pretty good,” he said after working for 49 minutes and 24 seconds. “Could have played another quarter, I think.”

Thankfully he didn’t have to. The Celtics ground out the clock, and the win, after 53 grueling minutes. It was the most satisfying win they’ve had since when exactly? Last June?

Maybe it will catch up with them on Wednesday against New Jersey. Maybe it will be the game everybody looks back on after the season and say, “That was the start of the turnaround.” Maybe it will be meaningless, just another of the 82.

It’s impossible to say on January 12th what last night at the Garden will mean, really. The Celtics pride themselves on the old tried and true one game at a time mantra, and so we’re left with this: For one game, the Celtics were back.

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