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Paul Pierce’s breakout game

01.23.12 at 12:49 am ET

It would be wrong to say there were signs that Paul Pierce was ready to drop 34 points in a game the Celtics had to have. There have been flashes here and there — a 24-point effort against Oklahoma City, a pair of dunks against the Suns on Friday — but there really hasn’t been any consistent thread to Pierce’s game this season to indicate he was ready to put it all together like he did in the Celtics’100-94 win over the Wizards on Sunday.

Pierce wasn’t in shape when he came from a bruised right heel and he wasn’t in the best shape before the injury. Both things contributed to his slow start, but one season after shooting almost 50 percent from the floor, Pierce’s shooting percentage has tumbled below 39 percent and his turnovers are also higher. (One area where Pierce has remained constant is his passing. His assists are up, which is either a sign that he’s playing his way back into shape or perhaps a signal of yet another late-career adjustment for one of the modern-day masters of the art.)

He started the season slowly, but efficiently, averaging 16.5 points and over six rebounds and four rebounds in his first four games. But as the competition got tougher, Pierce’s flaws were evident. He went 3-for-17 against Indiana and followed that up with a 2-for-5 effort against Dallas and 3-for-12 shooting against Chicago. Then came two high-scoring, but uneven performances against the Pacers and Thunder and then a pair of lackluster outings against the Raptors and Suns.

All things considered, we had yet to see the Paul Pierce that we’ve grown accustomed to watching over the years. He appeared hesitant handling the ball, and like the rest of the Celtics, he’s had major difficulty scoring inside where his percentages at the rim have gone from 70 to 54 percent.

But against the Wizards — and yes, the Wizards are a bad defensive team — Pierce found his groove and all of his trademark moves were on display. He found his sweet spot, going 4-for-4 on elbow jumpers from the left side of the court. He worked the right-hand side for a pair of 3-pointers and another 20-footer. He also got to the free throw line 15 times and made 12 of his shots.

Pierce wasn’t just a scorer. He had 10 assists and helped get Kevin Garnett going in the second half, as well. Garnett made only one of four shots in the first half, but after a pick-and-pop jumper from Pierce he buried three straight attempts and finished with 17 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the second half.

The Wizards who had no one who could guard him. Rookie Chris Singleton drew the first assignment and he has potential as aa wing defender, but he’s also a rookie and Pierce took advantage of him. Rashard Lewis couldn’t keep up and Wizards coach Flip Saunders even tried guard Jordan Crawford on Pierce with predictable results.John Wall also got a turn, and when the Wizards resorted to double-teams, Pierce picked them apart.

It was an example of how much better the Celtics when just one of their Big Three have it going, especially Pierce, because he has the ability to create offense for himself and for others.

Now the question is whether he can do it again. He faces off with one of his old nemesis’ in Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglo on Monday and Pierce will have to be sharp because Rajon Rondo has missed two straight games with a sprained right wrist and Ray Allen left Sunday’s game with an ankle sprain. If either of them can’t play, let alone both, the burden on Pierce will increase.

The Celtics are 6-9 and half of their wins have come against the lowly Wizards. They haven’t proven anything yet, but Pierce’s game on Sunday was the first positive sign they’ve had since he returned.

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