Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics reacts after being called for a foul against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Philips Arena on Tuesday in Atlanta, Georgia. The Celtics won 87-80. Kevin C. Cox / Agence France-Presse
Paul Pierce knocked down the free throws to clinch it, then dropped to a knee near midcourt.
He wasn't planning on Tebowing, but it just felt right.
With a stunning performance, Pierce single-handedly led the Boston Celtics to a playoff win - even without their floor leader.
Pierce battled through another tough shooting night to score 36 points and the Celtics wiped out Atlanta's 11-point lead in the second half, stunning the Hawks 87-80 on Tuesday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference series.
Boston heads home for Game 3 on Friday night tied 1-1. Rajon Rondo will be back for the Celtics in that one, his shorthanded team having claimed the home-court edge even while he served a one-game suspension for bumping a ref in the postseason opener.
Pierce made sure the point guard wasn't missed, outscoring the Hawks all by himself over the last 15:08.
"I have a lot of experience, a lot of confidence from being in those moments," Pierce said. "You believe in yourself, your coach believes in you, your team believes in you, it's a combination of all those things."
Pierce scored Boston's first nine points but struggled mightily through the second and third quarters. He came through when the Celtics really needed him, especially with the Rondo-less offense a bit out of sync and Ray Allen sitting out again with an injured right ankle.
Down the stretch, the Celtics simplified things: Give the ball to Pierce and get out of the way.
"Paul was great," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "The only way we were going to win a game like this without Ray and Rondo was if Paul had a game like this."
After making a couple of foul shots with just over a minute remaining to clinch it, Pierce paused on his way back to the bench to copy the move named after NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, sinking to a knee and bowing his head for a brief prayer in the middle of the court.
"You just want to thank God for putting you in those positions," Pierce said. "It wasn't pre-scripted. It just came to me."
The Hawks appeared to be in control when they pushed out to a 65-54 lead late in the third quarter. But Boston sliced it to 66-61 by the end of the period, and Pierce led a dominating fourth.
In wiping out the double-figure deficit, Pierce outscored the Hawks all by himself, 18-15, including 13 points in the final quarter. That was more than he had in all of Game 1, when Atlanta held Pierce to 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
"We expected him to come out and be aggressive offensively," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "He got going early."
The Celtics were up 74-72 when a quick spurt essentially finished the Hawks, especially when Josh Smith went out late in the game with a sprained left knee.
Joe Johnson turned it over, part of another tough game for the Hawks star, sparking a fast break that ended with a give-and-go from Avery Bradley to Pierce for a dunk. After Jeff Teague missed badly on a jumper, Pierce came down and hit his first 3-pointer of the series after missing his 10, stretching the lead to 79-72 with 3 minutes left.
The Hawks called a timeout, but no need.
This one was over.
Atlanta's last hurrah ended when Johnson missed a free throw with a chance to close the gap to two points with 1:35 remaining. Kevin Garnett was hacked at the other end and made both his foul shots, Johnson missed a wild 3 from the top of the key and chants of "Let's go Celtics!" erupted at Philips Arena while the red-clad fans headed for the exits. For good measure, Pierce also led his team in rebounding with 14. Garnett had 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Bradley, who shifted over to take Rondo's spot at the point, chipped in with 14 points but only 3 assists - a far cry from what the Celtics usually get out of that position.
Johnson had 22 points but never got many open looks, hitting just 7 of 17 from the field. Smith had 16 points and 12 rebounds, the state of his knee now becoming a major concern for the Hawks, who already have played most of the season without Al Horford.