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No worries

Confident Celtics believe Pierce ready to shake slump

Posted: Thursday May 23, 2002 11:18 PM

WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) -- The New Jersey Nets found a way to defend Paul Pierce in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals: Let him shoot.

And Boston is hoping the Nets try that strategy again.

"The scoring's going to come soon," Celtics forward Antoine Walker said Thursday as the team prepared for Game 3 in Boston on Saturday. "He's going to have a big game."

Before the best-of-seven series started, Pierce said New Jersey didn't have anyone who could guard him. He backed up the boast with an average of 37 points against the Nets in four regular-season games. Boston won three of them.

In the series opener, Pierce scored 27 -- but when the Nets went on a game-changing 18-8 run, Pierce was on the bench after picking up two fouls 16 seconds apart early in the third quarter. In Game 2, Pierce went 3-for-20 from the field and missed nine free throws.

"I still want the ball in my hands, regardless of how my night's going," he said. "What else do you want me to do? I'm a scorer. That's my role on the team. That's all I've got to do to get out of it."

The Nets are under no illusion that they've solved their problem with Pierce.

"Well, you know he is not going to go 3-for-20. That's probably the last time in the series Paul will shoot the ball that badly," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "And Antoine Walker, those guys are still going to shoot 25 to 30 times a game, they are both going to get good numbers."

Pierce and Walker have a green light from Celtics coach Jim O'Brien to shoot whenever they get the open shot; that hasn't changed. The important thing to O'Brien is that the offense is working well enough to get the open shots. If it does, Pierce won't miss them for long.

"I thought they were great shots -- especially the ones from the free throw line," O'Brien said with a smile. "Those were uncontested."

New Jersey isn't wasting much time feeling sympathy for Pierce. The Nets have their own troubles, having squandered home court advantage with the Game 2 loss in which Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles and Todd MacCulloch combined for just 12 points; they had 14 apiece in Game 1.

"We had four guys struggle last game who can play better too," Van Horn said. "Obviously he [Pierce] is going to want to play better. I am going to want to play better. Kerry and Todd are going to want to play better. Our guys off the bench are going to want to play better. We had a few more guys struggling on our team than they did. We need to get back on track, as I'm sure they do."

Pierce said he's already made the only adjustment he's going to make after his off-night, going back to his old approach on free throws. He hit just seven of his first 16 free throw attempts on Tuesday night before making four in a row down the stretch to help clinch a 93-86 victory.

"I thought I was doing something wrong, and I really wasn't," Pierce said Thursday. "I stopped myself. I'm the only one who can stop myself. I missed some shots that I usually make. That's about it.

"But the way I played that last game, three out of 20, they still couldn't beat us. They're going to have to worry about four other guys. My whole thing is: win or lose. I'd be more disappointed if I go out and have a great game and we lose. I'd feel like I didn't do enough."

Asked whether he worried that the bricks might be weighing on Pierce's mind, O'Brien put his thumb and index finger together to make a nice, round zero. Any time he is tempted to worry, O'Brien remembers Boston's game on Dec. 1 against the very same Nets, when Pierce shot 1-for-16 in the first half.

"That's a bad half of shooting," O'Brien said. "And the guy with the most confidence going into the locker room was Paul Pierce. That's all I needed to see about him."

Pierce scored 33 points in the second half of that game and 13 of Boston's 15 points in overtime to give him 48 overall -- a career high, topping the 44 he scored against the Nets the previous season. And the Celtics overcame a 17-point deficit to win 105-98.

"I don't anticipate that's going to happen very much," O'Brien said when asked if the Celtics needed to worry that Pierce's slump might continue. "It's happened two times this year, and we've won both games. So that's the answer to that question."

 
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