As the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets stood by eagerly, while officials gathered around the replay monitor, I couldn’t help but be overcome with a strong sense of déjà vu.
The Celtics led 92-90 with little under four seconds to play. The Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried had just missed two potential game-tying free throws, Andre Miller failed to make good on the team’s 1,039,869th second-chance opportunity of the night and the resulting rebound was batted out of bounds.
Boston ball. Win streak intact.
Except it wasn’t.
Instead, following an overruling of the original call, Denver was gifted possession of the ball. Ty Lawson made the most of it, waltzing into the paint for the equalizing bucket with just under a second left on the clock.
A big fourth quarter lead vanished? Check. Jump shots that were falling for three quarters suddenly clanking off the rim? Check. A game that should have been won in regulation entering overtime? Check.
I knew how this one was going to end.
Except I didn’t.
This time around, the Celtics regrouped to battle on for an inspired 118-114 triple-overtime victory. A victory that should not only be seen as the team’s best performance of the season, but also as a blueprint for success the remainder of the way.
And it all centralizes around the formation of a new Big Three in Boston: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.
Or as Terry calls the trio, the “Triple Original Gangsters.”
Ever since the Celtics drafted him with the 10th overall pick in 1998, Pierce has been producing for the team year in and year out.
He’s gone through the good—the franchise’s 17th NBA title in 2008—the bad—a total of six losing seasons in his first nine years—and the ugly—being stabbed 11 times at a nightclub in 2000.
But through it all, one thing has become perfectly clear: When the going gets tough, Boston can certainly count on Pierce.
This season has been no different.
Through 50 games, Pierce is averaging 18.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. He’s shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from beyond the arc.
But in the absence of Rajon Rondo, Pierce has taken his game to another level.
During that span, Pierce has averaged 18.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in seven games. He leads the team in all three categories in that stretch.
Stepping away from his usual role as scorer, Pierce has become more of a facilitator. He’s not only creating shots for himself, but also for his teammates. Not to mention, he’s been one of the most aggressive Celtics on the boards. His all-around play has already resulted in two triple-doubles for Pierce.
It’s not exactly the role head coach Doc Rivers envisioned for the 35-year-old Pierce entering his 14th season in the league. Instead of seeing his minutes reduced, Pierce is currently playing the second-most minutes per game (34.1) on the team behind the injured Rondo.
But hey, you won’t hear Pierce complaining.
Take for example Sunday’s win against the Nuggets, where he logged in a career high 54 minutes.
Pierce paced Boston with 27 points, while also recording 14 rebounds and 14 assists. Although he was 7-of-20 from the field, Pierce connected on 5-of-9 shots from range.
But the shot everyone will remember will be his spot up three-pointer at the end of the second overtime to extend the game.
It’s just the latest addition into the growing collection of clutch shots by No. 34 this season.
With Rondo’s injury, the Celtics need Pierce now more than ever.
The Big Ticket
Just like Pierce, Garnett was expected to take a more limited role during the regular season.
However, due to Boston’s lack of frontcourt depth, paired with the season-ending injury of Jared Sullinger, Garnett has had to play a much larger role this year.
Thus far, Garnett has averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in 30.4 minutes a night. He’s also hitting 50.6 percent of his shots from the field.
With Rondo out, Garnett too has improved his overall game.
In the seven games since, Garnett has averaged 17.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in 32.3 minutes a night. He’s also upped his shooting to a 53.3 percent clip.
But Garnett’s most important contribution is made on the defensive end of the floor.
When Garnett is on the court, the Celtics allow opponents an average of 100.2 points per 100 possessions. That number balloons to 109.7 points per 100 possessions when he is on the bench. Opponents’ field goal percentage also increases 2.5 percent when Garnett is off the floor. (per 82games.com)
Essentially, Boston’s defense rests solely on the aged shoulders of the 36-year-old, 17-year veteran.
Against Denver, Garnett put his importance on full display. He recorded 20 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, two steals and three blocks in 47 minutes.
But he saved his best for last.
Garnett recorded 10 points over the three overtimes, including the first six points of the Celtics’ 11 in the third and final period.
With every passing game, Garnett is living proof that age is just a number.
After signing to a three-year, $15 million contract over the offseason, expectations were high for Terry.
However, his poor shooting and lackadaisical defense over the first half of the season left Terry spending the majority of his time on the bench.
His overall numbers through 50 games—10.3 points and 2.4 assists per game—aren’t going to raise any eyebrows. They’re also Terry’s lowest totals since his rookie season back in 1999.
But his play in the wake of Rondo’s injury has renewed faith.
During the seven-game stretch, Terry is averaging 13.3 points and 3.2 assists per game. He is also shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 44.5 percent from three-point range.
Terry is finally living up to his reputation of being a tremendous spark plug coming off the bench. He’s also a large reason Boston’s bench is averaging 43.6 points per game over their last seven games.
Against Denver, Terry exemplified that his stellar play can translate into first-team action as well. In 43 minutes, Terry netted 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting.
But his biggest contribution came in the dying embers of the third overtime.
With 1:32 remaining in a 113-113 game, Terry squared up from center, knocking down his fifth three-pointer of the night. He then quickly followed that up by forcing a steal—his third of the game—before converting on a breakaway lay-up to put the game away for good.
Rivers had nothing but good things to say during his post-game conference:
I apologized to Jason after the game for taking him out for defensive situations because clearly he’s our stopper now. It’s just Jason. He does so many things for you, he’s so tough. It’s amazing how tough he is. That’s why he’s still playing. He’s a gamer.
Now that’s the guy GM Danny Ainge spent his money on during the offseason.
Clear the runway, folks. The Jet’s ready for takeoff.
Summing It All Up
The trio of Pierce, Garnett and Terry might have a combined 106 years of age among them—but they also combine to provide the Celtics with their best chance of victory.
Sure, depending on a group of players on the wrong side of 30 might not be the best strategy for long-term success. But right now, it’s proving to be exactly what this team needs.
Leave the long-term planning to Ainge and his staff. That’s what the trade deadline is for.
Right now, let’s just enjoy the fact that Boston is playing with the belief that nobody can beat them.
We all remember what happened the last time they played with such an attitude.