Classic Box Score: Paul Pierce leads the greatest fourth quarter comeback in playoff history

(John Motten/Getty Images)

With NBA games on hold until at least July, we periodically take a look back at the Celtics past with the feature Classic Box Score here at BSJ. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a fun look back at epic games or performances in Celtics history. 

For today’s edition, we take a look back at the 18-year anniversary of the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in postseason history: Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002. This ended up being the apex of the Jim O’Brien era in Boston and Paul Pierce’s early career before a weak supporting cast sunk the Celtics for the next half-decade prior to the arrival of the New Big 3. For one matinee performance in 2002, an overachieving Celtics squad looked like they had a realistic chance of advancing to the NBA Finals.

The Setup
Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals
No. 3 Boston Celtics (1-1) vs. No. 1 New Jersey Nets (1-1)
May 25, 2002
TD Garden

The Nets came into the series as heavy favorites as the top seed in the East but the C’s had managed to split the first two games in Jersey. The Nets won comfortably in Game 1 with seven players scoring in double figures keeping a late Celtics rally at bay with 104-97 win The Celtics managed to bounce back in Game 2 however with a 93-86 victory despite the fact that Pierce and Antoine Walker combined to shoot a pathetic 14-of-52 from the field. Strong performances from role players like Eric Williams and Tony Battie (along with 33 percent shooting from the Nets) opened the door for the C’s to escape with a 93-86 Game 2 win in a defensive struggle.

Ugly games were par for the course in this series and all year long for these two teams. The Nets and Celtics had mediocre offenses and elite defenses (top-5 in league) all year long, grinding their way to wins on the strength of their stars most nights (Pierce and Kidd). A look at the talent level on both squads makes it easy to wonder how these squads were in the East Finals in the first place but that ignores how weak the entire conference was in this era. The C’s had taken out the defending East champs (Sixers) in the first round and disposed of perhaps the weakest No. 2 seed in East history (Pistons) in just five games. The 52-win Nets were also pushed to five games by the eighth-seeded Pacers in Round 1 before dominating the Hornets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With both teams coming into Garden with the series tied at 1-1, the series could be viewed as closer to a coin flip at this point.

The Game

Calling this a miserable start for the Celtics would be an understatement in front of a raucous Garden crowd watching its first meaningful postseason basketball since the Big Three era. Pierce had a nightmare start, missing 12 of his 14 shots over the first three quarters while being hounded by an elite Nets defense. Pierce spent a healthy chunk of his first 36 minutes complaining about a lack of calls to officials as well amid his frustration.

Unlike Game 2, the supporting cast wasn’t showing up in this one early to help bail Pierce out. Antoine Walker was the only player on the roster that made more than two field goals in the first half. Meanwhile, the Nets were getting balanced scoring from their deep rotation and led by as many as 25 points with 13 minutes left in this contest heading into the fourth quarter.

Things changed of course at the start of the fourth with the C’s in a 21-point hole. NBC famously showed Antoine Walker (the only Celtics having a decent game) ripping everyone on the bench, especially Pierce about all his whining to officials.

The Celtics and Pierce came out looking like a different team in the final 12 minutes. Pierce’s elite scoring ability was at its best during his 19-point fourth quarter. No one could stay with Pierce as the Truth piled up strong takes in the rim and drew fouls against all of the Nets wing stoppers. Meanwhile, the Nets offense stalled completely, with Aaron Williams serving as the only Net capable of hitting a jump shot (he scored 11 of 16 points in the frame for the visitors).

Once the doubles started coming for Pierce, he made the right pass with Kenny Anderson knocking down a couple of key open jumpers. More importantly though, Pierce and the Celtics won this game at the free-throw line. They forced the Nets to commit 14 fouls in the fourth quarter alone, leading to 21 free throw attempts for the C’s. That allowed the hosts to not only put points on the board with the clock stopped but also allowed them to set their defense on nearly every possession.

The lead was still 10 for the Nets with four minutes remaining but a 16-2 run by Boston to close out the game sealed the deal with Pierce scoring eight of the final 10 points in front of a raucous Garden.

Box Score

Other observations

—The Celtics opened the fourth quarter on a 15-0 run, holding the Nets scoreless for a 6:13 stretch dating