BOSTON — Paul Pierce is probably still floating today.
With 7.4 seconds on the clock and his team down by two, he took a handoff from Kevin Garnett, dribbled to his right and launched a fall-away 20-foot jump shot just inside the 3-point arc, in front of the "Celtics.com" logo painted on the sidelines and over the outstretched hand of 6-foot-10-inch Al Horford. The ball cut cleanly through the net with half a second remaining, giving Boston a 103-102 victory over the previously unbeaten Hawks.
"Sup-er-star," Celtics guard Eddie House said, enunciating each syllable.
Last night's outburst was just another pump of helium into the suddenly larger-than-life swingman, whose Nike-clad feet probably haven't touched the ground since June's championship celebration. If Celtics fans had their way, his likeness would appear as a giant balloon in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"Get the ball to Paul Pierce; get the hell out the way," Garnett said of Boston's strategy on its final offensive sequence. "Superman's in the booth. Let's go home. That was the play. If y'all don't believe, ask Doc Rivers, he'll say the same exact thing."
Pierce finished with a game-high 34 points. He went 8 of 14 from the field and 15 of 16 at the line. His driving 3-point play at 1:37 in the fourth quarter gave Boston (8-1) what looked like an insurmountable 99-95 lead.
The Hawks (6-1), however, fought back. Marvin Williams' 3-pointer from the corner gave his team a late 102-101 lead. At that point, Lawrence native Steve Holman, Atlanta's radio play-by-play man, leaped out of his seat.
Holman should've known. Only Pierce gets to walk on air at TD Banknorth Garden these days.
Former Celtic Joe Johnson, who led Atlanta with 28 points, seemed resigned to that fact.
"He's been making shots like that for quite some time in his career," Johnson said. "You had to know the ball was going to go to him. We did everything we could and he made a tough shot."
Everything, Pierce said, went as planned.
"Once I went right, I had the big guy on me," said the 11th-year veteran out of Kansas, who complimented the up-and-coming Hawks, who took the Celtics to seven games in the first round of the playoffs last spring. "I sort of got to my sweet spot. I felt good the whole time.
"We knew it was going to be a tough game. They have their defense together. We did not expect this game to be easy."
"They weren't undefeated for no reason," Garnett said. "They're a lot more defensively sound than they were a year ago."
Atlanta did get one more chance after Pierce's make, but Mike Bibby couldn't handle an inbound-pass with less than a second to go. Afterward, a sheepishly smiling Pierce entered the interview room with ice packs on his knees and right hand.
"We're not going to be talking about the hand tonight," Garnett joked about Pierce's sore but seemingly intact paw. "Please no questions about the hand."
In a way, it was ironic that Pierce is the one who needed so much ice. Guarding him is like tackling New York Giants fullback Brandon Jacobs. It's a miserable, painful job that often results in defenders scrambling to the cold tub or to their personal Shiatsu masseuse. Ask Horford, Johnson or Maurice Evans, who fouled Pierce while fighting for position at 2:22 in the third quarter. All Evans could do was wince and shake his head.
"I think he's a sneaky athlete," guard Eddie House said of Pierce. "You look at him and you don't think he's very athletic. He's one of the most athletic guys on the team."
At 6-7, 235 pounds, Pierce doesn't do it with silky smooth moves like Kobe Bryant, or with a picture-perfect jumper like Ray Allen, or with the playground showmanship of Chris Paul.
He does it his way. Power dribbles, off-balance jumpers and straight ahead drives to the basket.
"He plays at a perfect pace," House said. "He's just a great player, man. He's a superstar. What more can I say?"
Alan Siegel is a sportswriter at The Eagle-Tribune. E-mail him at ASiegel@eagletribune.com.