ATLANTA — The amazing thing about Paul Pierce ‘s night that included 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists in 44 minutes, was that everyone in the building knew the only way the Celtics  were going to walk out of the arena with a win, was for Pierce to strap his team on his back and carry them over the finish line.
Without Ray Allen , whose bothersome ankle simply won’t cooperate, and Rajon Rondo , who was suspended for bumping an official, Pierce was the team’s offense. He took 26 of their 68 shots and threw in 13 free throws for good measure in their 87-80 victory.
“It ranks right up there when you factor in no Ray, no Rondo,” Doc Rivers  said. “Literally, the only way we were going to win the game ‘ I mean, that was the only way we were going to win the game ‘ is if Paul played like that. He knew that. So did they, yet he still did it. It just tells you how special he is.”
Rivers wanted to take him out of the game and give him a rest, but with the Celtics fighting from behind for almost the entire game, he really didn’t have much of a choice. So he improvised. Rivers called on Marquis Daniels  to help guard Joe Johnson  and give Pierce a break on the defensive end. That the Hawks  couldn’t take advantage of the situation says a lot about why even down a game and without two of their key players, folks weren’t ready to write off the Celtics.
Of course, having Pierce helped as well.
“A lot of experience, confidence, you know, being in those moments, believing in yourself, coaches that believe in you, teammates that believe in you ‘ it’s a combination of all those things,” Pierce said. “Just the confidence that you have so many people that believe in you whether you succeed or fail. There’s a lot of times I’ve failed to just put me in this position now.”
Failure was not an option for Pierce. He started the game aggressively looking to score and hit his first four shots. But then the Hawks made it tough. He made only two of his next 10, but he kept pushing and lived at the free throw line. For long stretches, that was the only way he kept them afloat offensively.
“I felt I had to do everything,” Pierce said with a laugh. “With Rondo being out, a lot of responsibility falls on me with play-making, scoring, rebounding. But that’s all part of it. A number of guys stepped up tonight, not only myself.”
But then Keyon Dooling  buried a couple of 3-pointers, breaking an 0-for-the-series slump behind the arc, and Daniels hit a couple of free throws. The Celtics defense stiffened — the Hawks made just 11-of-40 shots in the second half — and Pierce went to work. He took seven shots in the fourth quarter and made five of them, including a 3-pointer that put them up seven, and led to a Tim Tebow-like genuflection at midcourt.
“He was a monster,” Rivers said.
“He did everything you could want a superstar to do,” added Dooling.
Pierce has had a number of moments through his storied career, but this one has to rank among his all-time performances. Considering everything that had happened in the last 48 hours and the uncertainty surrounding the team’s future, it’s not a stretch to say that Pierce saved the season, as well as the era that has defined him as a Celtic.