Paul Pierce Weighs in on Celtics’ East Finals Hopes: ‘This Works for Them’

Paul Pierce, former Celtics great, takes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at TD Garden.

Getty Paul Pierce, former Celtics great, takes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at TD Garden.

BOSTON — Late Thursday night after the Celtics had booked a trip to Miami for a Game 6, Paul Pierce stood on the TD Garden sideline by the scorer’s table discussing his personal itinerary.

Asked if he’s planning to be back in town Monday when the NBA has an if-necessary asterisk beside its Eastern Conference finals seventh game listing, Pierce told Heavy Sports, “Yeah, I’ll be here. Of course. What you mean? I’ll fly out and fly back. I’ll be out here Monday, for sure — 100 percent.”

The Celtics, still down 3-2 in the series, will, of course, have to win Saturday in South Florida to create another Garden party. So the smart-ass thing to ask someone you’ve known for 25 years was whether he’d be in Boston two days after that to hang out or to go to a basketball game.

Paul Pierce smiled widely.

“This is not a basketball game,” he said. “This is religion.”

Celtics Are Counterpunchers

In that regard, it’s fair to say the Celtics had sinned their way to a 3-0 deficit against the Heat, being the crunchee in crunch time the first two games and failing to register a pulse in the third. It was an unseemly demise for a team with the second-best record in the entire league going against the eighth seed in the East. No knock on the Floridians, but the basketball world was left to wonder how the Celts could let this happen.

This team had failed to live up to its collective talent while getting ejected from previous postseasons, but 3-0 against a team that needed two bites of the play-in apple just to get into the tournament?

Pierce, standing with his retired number above him to the left, has come to accept his old club with a verbal shrug.

“I mean, they are who they are,” he said. “They’re a team that’s always played well with their back against the wall. They’re counterpunchers.”

Which wouldn’t sit well with franchise patriarch Red Auerbach, who regularly stated, “I want instigators, not retaliators.” Pierce essentially agreed with Shaquille O’Neal, who told Heavy Sports earlier in the series “you have to poke ’em to get them there.”

“You know, their backs are against the wall, then they respond,” Pierce said. “That’s how it’s been all season long. I’m not surprised they’re in this spot. I’m a little surprised they went down 3-0, but they always play well when they’re in this position.”

But isn’t that a little nuts?

“Naw, this is what works for them,” Pierce replied.

Except when playing with fire leads to the burn of elimination.

The Celtics’ penchant of turning their back on what they know works for them is continually odd to see. Trading ball movement and cutting for one-on-one forays when things get tough has gotten them in some bad trouble.

“That’s who they are,” Pierce said again. “Man, they are who they are. They got great one-on-one players. How much ball movement were they doing when Jayson went for 51?”

Actually, quite a bit.

Pierce: Celtics Can Be an All-Time Great Defensive Team

But, in truth, it was suggested to The Truth that the Celtics’ best success is really predicated on defense, which turned Game 4 around and was the driving force all night Thursday.

“That’s what we need to talk about. Let’s stop talking about their ball movement,” Pierce said. “Let’s talk about how they need to defend, because they got great individual defenders. When they trust each other on defense, they’re a different team. They cause turnovers. The Heat shot 51%, but we caused turnovers (16 for 27 Celtic points Thursday). You know what I’m saying? That’s it. It’s the defense.

“They got potential to be one of the greatest defensive teams EVER. Think about it. If you look at them all as individual defensive players — Smart, Tatum, Brown, Derrick White made All-Defense, Williams … both of them. They got potential to be one of the greatest defensive teams.

“It’s the defense, man. They turned them over last game, they turned them over today.”

That came after the Celtics rolled over in Game 3 last Sunday, trailing by as many as 33 points in a 128-102 loss.

Pierce shook his head.

“Yeah, Game 3 is mind-boggling,” he said. “But, look, what I’m seeing from Miami now… I knew the Celtics would get back in the series, because Miami — they’re on a great run. Let’s not take anything away from them. Jimmy Butler is doing Jimmy Butler things that he does during the playoffs. But Miami is doing some of what got them to be an eighth seed. They have tendencies to play like this. This is what they’ve done all year. That’s why they are an eighth seed.

“This was always possible that they could revert back to this, and the Celtics could revert to being the team that won all those games this year. That’s why this ain’t your typical 3-0 deficit the Celtics were up against. That’s why this could be the one team to come back.”

And why Pierce thinks he’ll be at the Garden Monday. For a basketball game.


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