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The Captain guides the ship

03.07.09 at 12:10 am ET

Never let it be said that Paul Pierce is not self-aware. As the Captain came off the floor, victorious over both the Cavaliers and LeBron James, he laid a couple of hard high-fives on some fans at courtside. A young man in a Cavs jersey held out his hand as well, but Pierce left him hanging. No Kevin Garnett? No problem. Pierce was conceding nothing to anyone in a Cavalier jersey.

In 45 minutes, Pierce took 22 shots, made 11 of them, scored 29 points, grabbed four rebounds, handed out nine assists (and had only two turnovers) and helped force the league’s best player into a 5-for-15 shooting performance. How good was Pierce? Let’s put it this way: If Larry had done what Pierce accomplished there would be hosannas in the paper tomorrow and testaments to his greatness. (Click here for a recap).

As it was, Pierce was happy to compliment the young bigs for a phenomenal performance and then he put the whole thing into perspective. “For us to get this was huge,” Pierce said. “We’re both going for homecourt advantage. For them to get a win would have been devastating, especially with the way they play at home.”

Without Garnett, this was something of a house money game for the Celtics. Yes, a loss would have left them in a precarious state in the race for homecourt–three game down in the loss column and a big game down in the series tiebreaker–but the flip side was all profit.

Win the game without KG and it’s a whole new set of circumstances for the Celtics. Nineteen games to go and mere percentage points separate the two teams.

What made Pierce’s performance all the more extraordinary was that he was not the offensive focus in the first half. Assistant coach Armond Hill had shown the team a tape of them at their best; moving the ball, making the extra pass, finishing plays. Add to that the Cavs strong defensive play on the perimeter and the plan was to go inside early and often.

“Cleveland is a great perimeter defensive team,” Pierce said. “They trap really hard on the pick and roll. They trap really hard on down screens. We made that extra pass all night long and we took advantage of it.”

The Celtics held a ridiculous 58-22 advantage on points in the paint, which more than offset the equally ridiculous 38-12 free throw discrepancy, and it resulted in huge nights for Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby Davis, Leon Powe and Mikki Moore.

But when it was winning time, when all the cards were on the table, it was Pierce who came to collect. For a while it looked like we would be in for another epic Pierce-James showdown in the fourth quarter, but in the end it was all Pierce.

With James sitting out the first few minutes of the fourth, Pierce went into attack mode on poor Wally Szczerbiak. After the Cavs cut the lead to seven, Pierce split a double-team and rolled to the basket for a layup. On the next possession he found Powe for a dunk. It was all coming so easy for him. With the C’s holding 10, Pierce got himself in the lane and hit an impossible fadeaway. To cap it off he took a gut-busting charge from Delonte West on the other end.

The roar of the crowd only added to his unstoppable flow. The fourth quarter has become Pierce’s time this year and it was again last night.

Pierce was asked about his matchup with James. “You want to make him play both ends of the court,” Pierce said. “It’s tremendously difficult. Numerous times I’ve guarded him over the years, I feel like he’s worn me down.”

On this night it was Pierce, one of the few players in the league who can even conceive of going mano-a-mano with the King who won the war of attrition.

The Celtics had the usual gameplan. Make James beat them from the outside. “Listen,” Doc Rivers said. “With LeBron it’s a make/miss game every time he plays.”

More often than not James missed. Whether it was a the effects of too many road games or too many minutes, or simply Pierce’s will (or more likely, a combination of all three) this was not LeBron’s night. It belonged to Paul Pierce.

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