Paul Pierce looked around the visitors’ locker room Tuesday in Charlotte and wondered where the Celtics had gone.
The bunch in there wasn’t them, he surmised. It couldn’t be. Sure, he’d sat out his first game of the season to rest, but in his absence the Celtics then lost to the NBA’s worst team by 26 points. The Celtics wouldn’t do such a thing.
“Was I in somebody else’s locker room?” Pierce said he wondered to himself.
The mood on the team’s charter flight home was a cocktail of disappointment and anger, and Pierce said he knew that no matter what team stood in their way Wednesday night, the Celtics were going to destroy them, even if he didn’t play.
Pity the Toronto Raptors, who wandered helplessly into the line of fire at TD Garden.
Boston’s captain returned to action and so did the Celtics, who bulldozed and bullied the visitors in a 112-88 win in a game over long before the buzzer howled before a crowd emptying quickly and happily into the night.
Pierce scored 15 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, and had 4 assists, meager numbers considering the Celtics scored their sixth-most points this season while snapping a two-game losing streak.
But his mere presence made an impact that was unmistakable.
Coach Doc Rivers said he didn’t want to overplay Pierce’s stabilizing effect because, “We were awful last night. You know what I mean?
“But clearly having Paul on the floor is important for us because he does more than just stabilize, he scores. And he’s a threat at the end of the clock. And that’s huge for us.”
Pierce didn’t have too many clutch shots in the rout. They weren’t needed in a game the Celtics led by as much as 28. He was one of seven Celtics to score in double figures, and 10 of them had at least 5 points. Jeff Green scored a team-high 20 points off the bench.
Defense, though, is what turned the game from close to merciless.
In the third quarter, defensive ace Avery Bradley hounded both Toronto point guards — Kyle Lowry and Sebastian Telfair — to the point of frustration. Telfair became annoyed and elbowed Bradley in the gut on one play. Bradley looked at the referee and was incredulous. No whistle blew, and Bradley pushed Telfair back.
At that point, Telfair already had received a technical foul for arguing with the referees in the quarter, and he kept on barking after the tussle. He was issued another technical and was ejected. He scored 5 points all night, the same total as Lowry.
“Avery, I thought in the third quarter changed the complexion of the game with his ball pressure,” Rivers said.
Bradley, who didn’t speak to reporters after the game, was quiet offensively, but he scored twice in a span of 17 seconds (one was a fast-break basket off a steal) in the third to put the Celtics up by 10. That lead ballooned to 19 at the end of the quarter, which Boston closed on a 21-6 run.
The Celtics were aggressive in that quarter, driving to the basket and collecting fouls against Toronto. Boston made 15 of 19 free throws alone in the third; it made 28 of 35 for the game. The fourth quarter needn’t have been played, but it was, if only for tradition’s sake.
Pierce, who passed Charles Barkley for 20th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, checked out of the final frame early, as did Kevin Garnett, who scored 12 points and moved into 15th place on that list, passing Lakers legend Jerry West.
“The joke around here is that every two days or something we’re making history,” Garnett said. “That’s not a bad joke to be a part of, though.”
Garnett, with his warmup clothes on and a towel wrapped around his neck, did rise from the bench in the final few minutes to dance and laugh while the videoboard played the “Gino Time” dancing clip from American Bandstand. Fans danced with him.
“They didn’t have Paul Pierce [Tuesday] night,” said Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, who scored 17 points. “With him coming back, you know they were gonna come out swinging, and they did.”
Rudy Gay scored 19 to lead Toronto, which entering the game had been blown out in its last four meetings with the Celtics in Boston, losing by an average of 24.3 points.
The same script played out in the fifth meeting at TD Garden, and Pierce said the effort was what he expected from a team “that was [ticked off] at the way we played [against Charlotte].”
Pierce added, “It didn’t matter who was going to come into the gym. You could put San Antonio, Oklahoma, Lakers — whoever the top teams that are out there, I think we would’ve put this type of effort and probably won by the same amount.”
The Celtics are 15-6 since Rajon Rondo was lost to a season-ending knee injury, and they have 18 regular-season games left. until the playoffs begin.
Fittingly, the next foe the Celtics face is be the one that embarrassed them most recently: Charlotte. The Bobcats visit the Garden Saturday.
Garnett said the Celtics need to play with an edge the rest of the way, and avenging their worst loss of the season would be a fine time to do just that.