By A.Sherrod Blakely
SAN ANTONIO During a time-out in the third quarter, Paul Pierce gathered the other four Celtics on the floor with him and had a simple, succinct message that he kept repeating.
"All right, y'all," he screamed. "We gotta scrap. We gotta scrap!"
And did they ever, as they pulled away in the second half for a gritty, 107-97 win over the San Antonio Spurs to sweep the season series.
With the victory, Boston (52-22) is now a half game ahead of the Miami Heat (52-23) for the No. 2 seed in the East, and two games back of the Chicago Bulls (54-20) for the top spot in the East.
For the Spurs, (57-18), it was their fifth straight loss - a first in the Tim Duncan era.
Pierce did more than talk the talk on Thursday.
He had his sixth double-double of the season, with 21 points and 11 rebounds to go with seven assists.
There's no question that Pierce's words as well as his play, resonated throughout the Celtics' roster in a game that both teams desperately needed to win.
"I can't do nothing without my teammates," said Pierce, whose Celtics came in having lost three of their last four games. "I just go out and try and lead by example, that's it. This is not a one-man show."
That became quite obvious when you saw the way that Pierce's teammates stepped their games up as well.
Rajon Rondo delivered the kind of performance we haven't seen from him since the early part of the season when he was a dark horse MVP candidate.
Rondo, playing his second straight game after missing one because of a right pinkie finger injury, had 22 points and 14 assists for his team-leading 28th double-double this season.
Making the points scored by Rondo even more surprising was that the bulk of them came from perimeter jumpers.
"He did a great job of knocking down shots tonight," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
The same could not be said for the Spurs, who shot 43.3 percent from the field compared to the C's who connected on 54.8 percent of their shots.
San Antonio got a game-high 23 points from Tony Parker, but only four came in the decisive fourth quarter.
The Spurs also got 20 points and 13 rebounds from Tim Duncan who returned to the lineup after missing the previous four games with a sprained left ankle injury.
San Antonio lost all four of those games.
And with Thursday's loss, the Spurs have lost five in a row for the first time in the Duncan-era.
"Tough stretch for us, tough game tonight," Parker said. "We played very well and they made every jump shot, shot the ball very well. Have to give them a lot of credit."
However, the game's early beginnings seemed to highlight the problems that have led to the C's slipping from the top spot in the East, while the Spurs seemed to play like the team that has been atop the NBA standings most of this season.
The Spurs shot the ball well in the first quarter in part because of their ability to get second-shot opportunities.
At the end of the first, San Antonio had a 33-31 lead.
Of their 33 points scored, 11 were second-chance points.
The second and third quarters belonged to the Celtics defense.
Boston contested shots better; limited San Antonio's second and third-shot opportunities and maybe most important, displayed the kind of defensive intensity and focus that we've seen in spurts lately.
Because of that, the Celtics began to pull away in the third as they took their first lead, 55-54, on a short jump shot by Ray Allen - his first made basket of the game at that point.
The C's defense continued to fluster San Antonio, which soon led to the Celtics up by as many as 10 points in the quarter before settling on a 77-70 lead going into the fourth.
And down the stretch, Boston's defense continued to keep the Spurs at bay even as Duncan began to assert himself by scoring 10 of his 20 points in the quarter.
But it wasn't enough, as the Celtics once again stepped up against one of the elite teams in the NBA.
So now the C's will try to build off this victory with a game at Atlanta just 24 hours later.
"This is a good place to try and gather some momentum," Pierce said. "We're talking about the team with the best record, best home record, what better place to get back on track than here? It's a good win today, but we got eight or nine games left."