BOSTON — It was the sight Celtics fans — and players — dread more than anything, superstar forward Paul Pierce collapsing to the floor in obvious pain, grabbing his left knee after a collision.
So, when asked to describe his reaction when Pierce stepped back onto the floor to start the second half, C's guard Keyon Dooling took a deep breath and summed up the feeling of Celtics Nation.
"YES!!!!" Dooling said with smile and a pump of his fist after the game.
Despite battling a knee injury suffered in a freak accident during warm-ups and reaggravated late in the second, Pierce was once again the man for the Celtics last night, scoring a game-high 24 points as the C's pushed the Hawks to the brink of elimination with a 101-79 laugher.
"Hey, he's The Truth," said backup center Greg Stiemsma with a shrug. "That seems to be the answer to a lot of questions lately. He was great."
But, for a tense time, the victory looked as if it could come at a very steep price.
A collective gasp filled the TD Garden, and most every living room in Greater Boston, with 5:45 to go in the first half.
After draining a 3-pointer, Pierce was moving off a double screen while on defense when he collided with Hawks forward Josh Smith.
Pierce, who had already scored 18 points, fell to the ground and reached for his knee. He then hobbled off the court and down the runway toward the locker room.
"Before the game I kind of tripped over someone's foot and had to sit out the last half of (pregame) shoot-around," said Pierce. "Then I kind of reaggravated it when I went into Josh there. But I really didn't want to sit around and let it get sore."
Many nerves were calmed when the second half kicked off, because Pierce was back on the court, and 2:57 into the third he had already knocked down a pair of 3-pointers.
It turned out, in fact, Pierce very nearly was not in the lineup for last night's drubbing after his pregame accident.
"When I left shoot-around, I probably thought he was not going to play," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I mean, he was just dribbling during warm-ups and just went to the floor. I was thinking, 'Honestly, what more can you do. We were walking.'
"When he went down, it didn't look good. But I talked to Paul right before the game and I asked him, 'What do you think?' He said, 'Well, let me just try to warm it up and see how it feels.'"
Pierce didn't just warm up, he caught fire once the game was underway. No. 34 tallied 10 points in the first quarter on 5-of-7 shooting, and added eight more points before he went down in the second.
"The difference in this game was that we had Paul," said Dooling. "He came out extremely focused. He knows it's the playoffs. We have players that can step up, but we need Paul on the court at full strength."
Pierce played just 3:36 in the second half, all in the third, with the game well out of reach. Much of his work after the break was on an exercise bike located in the runway.
"It was still sore so Doc just wanted to take precautions tonight especially with the big lead," said Pierce, who sported a smile and no noticeable limp following the contest. "I didn't want to just sit there, so that's why I went to the bike. It's still kind of sore."
He had plenty to smile about when he was in the game. Pierce finished 10-of-13 shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range, and four rebounds while playing just 16:37. That's less time than Stiemsma and just over four minutes more than Ryan Hollins.
Pierce did not address his status for tomorrow's elimination game, and Rivers was not committing.
"I have no idea," said Rivers. "We literally don't know. So, we'll find out."
But, his teammates wouldn't be surprised if The Truth is in action for Game 5.
"It takes a lot to knock him down," said Stiemsma. "He knows how much we need him. We don't worry too much about the bumps and bruises, and when he gets the opportunity to step up he takes advantage."