As he advances deep into the Celtics record book, rubbing elbows with Havlicek, Bird, Russell, and Cousy, Paul Pierce acknowledges that his takeover days occur less often than they did seven years ago, but they still occur.
On a night when the Celtics looked ready to cruise to a victory over one of the Eastern Conference’s downtrodden teams, Pierce became the savior like the old days, carrying his teammates with an array of leaning jumpers, off-balance 3-pointers, and old-man drives that are the fabric of his game.
And the Celtics needed them, as they nearly blew a 20-point lead, but used Pierce to fight back and then pull away for a 103-91 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics snapped a three-game losing streak, returning home from double-digit defeats seeking consistency.
That search continues as the Celtics played 2¾ sparkling periods before a stretch of six minutes nearly ruined everything they had established. Pierce delivered, however, scoring 8 points during a decisive 12-3 run that gave the Celtics a 98-85 lead with 3:29 left.
The Celtics avoided dropping below .500 for the first time since Nov. 9. And for Pierce, it was his first 40-point game since scoring 43 on April 17 at Madison Square Garden. He also became the oldest Celtic (35 years, 67 days) to score at least 40 in a regulation game. He drained 13 of 16 shots, including six of seven 3-pointers, as the Celtics led the entire way.
“All I wanted to do is play as hard as I could,” he said. “When you get on a slide like that you want to come home, do whatever you can, try to get a win. It’s a make-or-miss league. Who knows I was going to come in and shoot the ball the way I did, but the one thing I could control was how hard I was going to play today and the effort I was going to put out.”
It’s been a frustrating stretch for the Celtics, and the Cavaliers appeared to be the perfect salve. Cleveland was mistake-prone and passive, and Boston capitalized with a Pierce-fueled 24-11 run for the 20-point lead late in the third quarter.
The Cavaliers (5-22) looked done but were anything but, going on a 20-2 run to draw within 82-80 on a Tyler Zeller 3-point play with 9:04 left.
Rajon Rondo, who finished with 20 points and eight assists, countered with two buckets before Pierce scored 6 consecutive points to extend the lead to 98-85. Instead of some much-needed rest for his veterans, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was forced to play Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry 30-plus minutes each to seal the victory.
“Honestly, our bench came in and didn’t give us a lift,” Rivers said. “And they were fantastic in the first half. We still haven’t sustained a 48-minute game; we had that one stretch. We have to get better. We had a 20-point lead, you sub in, and I think guys think when you have that lead it’s scoring time now. And it’s really defensive time; you’ve got to continue to get stops. Then you can score. And I thought we short-cutted that part of it.”
Terry, who returned to the starting lineup, added 15 points, and Jason Collins, who got his first start of the season, fouled out in 23 minutes.
Kyrie Irving scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half for the Cavaliers. Zeller, a rookie out of North Carolina, added 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
The Cavaliers were without Anderson Varejao, the league’s leading rebounder, who was a late scratch because of a bruised right knee. That allowed the Celtics to be more competitive in the paint and opened up the middle for Rondo, who led the Celtics to an 8-point halftime lead with 12 of his 20.
The second half belonged to Pierce, who scored 25 points on 10-for-11 shooting as the Celtics shot 64.5 percent. In his last three games, Pierce is 26 for 39 and appears near top form, a process that has taken longer than in the past few years.
“I think when you play like that it can be contagious. Offensively, guys knocking down shots, and then other guys getting up in there and defending. Things can definitely be contagious,” Pierce said. “I know I think everybody definitely wanted to get off this slide that we’re on, so it was a good win, it’s a start.”