BOSTON (AP) — Freed from the burden of trying to guard LeBron James, Paul Pierce is back to his high-scoring ways.
That plus tenacious team defense have the Boston Celtics rolling in the Eastern Conference finals. They swept the first two games at the home of the Orlando Magic and now have time to rest their old bodies before Game 3 on Saturday night in Boston.
Pierce already feels revived now that he can focus more on his offense after the Celtics beat James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games in the conference semifinals.
He’s averaged 25 points in the two games against the Magic after managing just 13.5 per game in the Cleveland series.
“The biggest thing is I don’t have to guard LeBron James,” Pierce said. “You sit at home before the series, I’m watching so much LeBron, how to play him defensively, you forget about your offense. I have the opportunity to be a little more aggressive in this series.”
Pierce and his teammates showed their veteran poise in Tuesday night’s 95-92 win after Orlando went ahead 90-89 with 3:35 left.
Then Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo hit jumpers before Orlando’s Jameer Nelson made a layup. But Pierce calmly sank two free throws that put Boston ahead by three. Vince Carter missed two critical free throws for the Magic with 31.9 seconds to play.
Carter finished with 16 points and made just 5 of 15 shots with Pierce guarding him much of the time.
“I don’t have such a huge defensive responsibility,” Pierce said. “Not taking anything from Vince. Vince is a great challenge and he’s known for having big games. But you are talking about playing the best player (James) in the league. It’s tough physically and mentally.”
The Celtics had a day off from practice Wednesday and will be back at it Thursday.
They’ll try to fix the few problems in their defense, which has been outstanding. They’ve allowed an average of 90 points in the past two games to a Magic team that scored 107.3 per game in the previous round against Atlanta, a four-game sweep, and 102.8 in the regular season.
Still, Boston must do a better job against Dwight Howard, who scored 30 points in Game 2. When center Kendrick Perkins was on the bench with foul trouble, the much thinner Garnett guarded the powerful Howard.
“That’s not a matchup we were hoping for,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “Overall, he did a great job with his length. Kevin knows he’s not going to win a muscle contest with Dwight Howard, but he does have length. And he stretched him out and he made him change some shots.”
The Celtics know the key to their success is defensive intensity. That doesn’t change whether they’re in front of a hostile crowd — where they won twice in three days in a building where Orlando last lost on March 14 — or a full house of friendly fans that should be rocking Saturday night.
But Boston is just one of two teams with a better record on the road (26-15) than at home (24-17) and was beaten there 124-95 in Game 3 when Cleveland took a 2-1 series lead.
“I know last time we laid an egg at home in Game 3,” Pierce said. “I don’t feel this team being complacent when we get home.”
If any player does show signs of complacency, Garnett’s loud voice should shake him out of it. The Celtics missed him last year in the Eastern semifinals against Orlando, which still needed the full seven games to win the series.
This season, Boston had the fourth-best record in the East. Then it knocked off the No. 1 team when it beat Cleveland and now leads the No. 2 team.
“We are playing the second-best team in the East,” Garnett said. “We are doing it with guts and pure grit. We are playing defense for 48 minutes.”
Rondo, an offensive star throughout the playoffs, was determined to improve his defense after Nelson scored 20 points in the opener. Rondo held him to 9 in Game 2.
“My mindset was a defensive mindset,” Rondo said. “He got a couple easy looks. … Other than that, I think did I a great job on him.
“I know he’s going to come out aggressive in Game 3.”
The Celtics still have a couple of days to get ready for that.
“Kevin has a couple of little small ailments. Perk is dealing with some stuff. Even myself, even Rondo is dealing with some minor stuff. So it’s going to be a good break,” Pierce said. “It’s a very determined, very focused group, that really doesn’t want to come back … to Orlando.”