CHICAGO -- Paul Pierce told us we hadn't seen his "A" game yet. He told us we hadn't seen his "B" game, either. His "C" game? That we had seen a lot of.
He told us this after a 23-point (on 8-of-21 shooting) night in the series opener against the Bulls, a game he could have won for Boston had he knocked down a free throw with 2.5 seconds left. He told us again after an 18-point (on 8-of-19 shooting) performance in Game 2.
You know what? He was right.
Thursday night was vintage Paul Pierce, a three-point-bombing, lane-driving, All-NBA-type display that helped Boston hammer Chicago 107-86 (RECAP | BOX) and take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series. Pierce's modest stat line (24 points on 9-of-15 shooting) is misleading: This game was over by the end of the first quarter. And in those first 12 minutes, Pierce racked up 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting to push Boston to a 32-21 lead.
Confidence issues? What confidence issues?
"He's pretty much the most confident guy in the league," Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo said. "No matter how he played in the first two games, he's going to bring it regardless. If he didn't play well tonight, he [was] going to bring it in Game 4. You don't really have to worry about Paul, we know how he plays. He's going to show up."
Well, that's not entirely true. No question, Pierce is among the most dynamic scorers in the league. He has an explosive inside-out game and, when his jump shot is on, he can knock it down with an entire defense draped all over him. But he doesn't love the pressure that comes with being the focal point. Pierce's best years were 2001-03 (when Antoine Walker was the face of the franchise) and last season, when he could share the load (both on and off the court) with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. His most disappointing years were from 2005-07, when the Celtics gutted the roster and the pressure for the team to perform fell squarely on Pierce's shoulders. Pierce was still a prolific scorer (he averaged 23.6 points in '05-06 and 21.7 points in '06-07), but the burden of carrying a franchise was so overwhelming that he talked about asking for a trade.
It's why you wondered if there really was a confidence issue with Pierce. Garnett was gone, Allen was struggling and injuries to Leon Powe and Brian Scalabrine had reduced Boston's front line to a skeleton crew. Against a hungry, young Bulls team, Pierce needed to score, rebound and defend for the Celtics just to stay in the games.
Pierce insisted his confidence was fine. Celtics coach Doc Rivers attributed Pierce's struggles to over-thinking, suggesting that Pierce was waiting for double teams that just weren't coming. Both said Pierce would get it right.
Turns out, they were right.
"He played the perfect decoy but was aggressive at the same time," Rivers said. "I thought it was beautiful how he played."
That's also the kind of effort the Celtics will need from Pierce on Sunday, when the Bulls likely won't be nearly as bad (they shot just 37.5 percent from the field and had only two starters -- Ben Gordon and John Salmons -- in double figures) and the Celtics, who got 13 points off the bench from Stephon Marbury, probably won't be as good.
They will need another big game from Pierce. As he proved on Thursday, he still has that in him.
1. What's going on with Tony Allen?
Midway through Thursday night's game, multiple reports were posted online that the NBA had increased the security on the Celtics' bench in response to threats made against Allen's life. SI.com confirmed that the reports were accurate. The Celtics had no comment. It is unclear what is behind the threats, though a source told SI.com that they do not have anything to do with the 2005 incident in which Allen was charged with assault for allegedly breaking a man's eye socket outside of a Chicago restaurant. Allen was acquitted of the charge in 2007.
Allen left the Celtics' locker room quickly after the game and didn't offer much when approached by three reporters.
"Is that what you want to write about?" Allen said. "That's what you want to write about?"
2. Why was Rajon Rondo being carried off the court after the game?
Now that was strange. It's no secret that Rondo has been bothered by a right ankle sprain after landing awkwardly in the second quarter of Game 2. But Rondo didn't look too worse for wear in a 20-point, 11-rebound, six-assist effort on Thursday. I was standing in the tunnel when forward Bill Walker and Celtics security chief Phil Lynch carried Rondo to the Celtics locker room and couldn't figure out what was going on. One rumor that made the rounds was that Rondo, who took his sneaker off to ice his injured ankle when he came out in the fourth quarter, slipped on a broken ice bag.
According to Rondo, he was just getting a lift from a teammate.
"I was limping and Billy didn't want to see my limp," said Rondo, with both ankles in a bucket of ice. "I didn't slip, my ankles are fine."
3. Could the Bulls have possibly played worse?
I don't think so. Despite a packed house that was extra amped after watching Derrick Rose honored for being named Rookie of the Year before the game, Chicago came out about as flat as possible. The Bulls got next to nothing from Joakim Noah (eight points, 10 rebounds), Tyrus Thomas (six points, eight rebounds), Rose (nine points, two assists) and Brad Miller (three points, eight rebounds).
"Everybody had an off night, including myself," said Ben Gordon, who made 5-of-13 from the field and scored 15 points. "We have to move forward and make sure this doesn't happen again."
For that to happen, the Bulls need much better play from Rose, who, after an electrifying Game 1, has looked mediocre in Games 2 and 3.
"Derrick just has to be a little more aggressive," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Their pick-and-roll defense is no different. No one in this league can do it on their own. We have to find a way to understand our mistakes and play much, much better."