ATLANTA — Paul Pierce knocked down the free throws to clinch it, then dropped to a knee near midcourt.
He wasn’t planning on Tebowing, but it just felt right.
With a stunning performance, Pierce single-handedly led the Boston Celtics to a playoff win — even without their floor leader.
Pierce battled through another tough shooting night to score 36 points and the Celtics wiped out Atlanta’s 11-point lead in the second half, stunning the Hawks 87-80 on Tuesday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference series.
Boston heads home for Game 3 on Friday night tied 1-1. Rajon Rondo will be back for the Celtics in that one, his shorthanded team having claimed the home-court edge even while he served a one-game suspension for bumping a ref in the postseason opener.
Pierce made sure the point guard wasn’t missed, outscoring the Hawks all by himself over the last 15:08.
“I have a lot of experience, a lot of confidence from being in those moments,” Pierce said. “You believe in yourself, your coach believes in you, your team believes in you, it’s a combination of all those things.”
Pierce scored Boston’s first nine points but struggled mightily through the second and third quarters. He came through when the Celtics really needed him, especially with the Rondo-less offense a bit out of sync and Ray Allen sitting out again with an injured right ankle.
Down the stretch, the Celtics simplified things: Give the ball to Pierce and get out of the way.
“Paul was great,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “The only way we were going to win a game like this without Ray and Rondo was if Paul had a game like this.”
After making a couple of foul shots with just over a minute remaining to clinch it, Pierce paused on his way back to the bench to copy the move named after NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, sinking to a knee and bowing his head for a brief prayer in the middle of the court.
“You just want to thank God for putting you in those positions,” Pierce said. “It wasn’t pre-scripted. It just came to me.”
The Hawks appeared to be in control when they pushed out to a 65-54 lead late in the third quarter. But Boston sliced it to 66-61 by the end of the period, and Pierce led a dominating fourth.
In wiping out the double-figure deficit, Pierce outscored the Hawks all by himself, 18-15, including 13 points in the final quarter. That was more than he had in all of Game 1, when Atlanta held Pierce to 12 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
“We expected him to come out and be aggressive offensively,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “He got going early.”
The Celtics were up 74-72 when a quick spurt essentially finished the Hawks, especially when Josh Smith went out late in the game with a sprained left knee.
Joe Johnson turned it over, part of another tough game for the Hawks star, sparking a fast break that ended with a give-and-go from Avery Bradley to Pierce for a dunk. After Jeff Teague missed badly on a jumper, Pierce came down and hit his first 3-pointer of the series after missing his 10, stretching the lead to 79-72 with 3½ minutes left.
The Hawks called a timeout, but no need.
This one was over.
Atlanta’s last hurrah ended when Johnson missed a free throw with a chance to close the gap to two points with 1:35 remaining. Kevin Garnett was hacked at the other end and made both his foul shots, Johnson missed a wild 3 from the top of the key and chants of “Let’s go Celtics!” erupted at Philips Arena while the red-clad fans headed for the exits.
For good measure, Pierce also led his team in rebounding with 14. Garnett had 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Bradley, who shifted over to take Rondo’s spot at the point, chipped in with 14 points but only three assists — a far cry from what the Celtics usually get out of that position.
Johnson had 22 points but never got many open looks, hitting just 7 of 17 from the field. Smith had 16 points and 12 rebounds, the state of his knee now becoming a major concern for the Hawks, who already have played most of the season without Al Horford.
Smith, who went out for good with 4:20 remaining, will be re-evaluated Wednesday. The Hawks surely can’t afford to lose him, too.
“He is one of our go-to guys down the stretch,” Drew said. “We were missing all of the things he brings to the table for us, especially down low.”
Early on, Teague was a force at both ends for the Hawks. He made a great crossover move out beyond the 3-point stripe, split the Celtics defense and went right down the lane for a massive slam. Defensively, he showed off his speed when he got caught on the wrong side trying to double-team the ball, sprinting all the way to the other corner to swat a 3-point attempt by Keyon Dooling into the crowd.
Teague thumped his chest defiantly and was patted on the back by a fan wearing a vintage Hawks jersey. He finished with 18 points but missed all four of his shots in the fourth.
The game definitely appeared to be going the Hawks’ way by the third quarter. When Smith tried to pass the ball inside, Boston’s Greg Stiemsma got a hand on it, but the ball deflected into the corner — right to a wide-open Johnson, standing behind the 3-point arc. With no one around, he swished the 3 to push the Hawks to their 65-54 advantage.
For the longest time, the Celtics struggled to do anything right. They botched a 3-on-1 when Mickael Pietrus tried an ill-advised bounce pass, which was about the only way Atlanta’s Kirk Hinrich had any chance of breaking it up. The Hawks took off the other way, and Smith laid in an easy one.
Rivers stormed out of his seat, livid at his team’s sloppiness, and signaled for a timeout. He was so mad he didn’t even want to stand near his players as they trudged to the bench, remaining out near the foul line until he regained his composure.
He was feeling a lot better by the end. The Hawks made just 4 of 19 shots in the final quarter, missing all four of their 3-point attempts. They also turned it over five times.
“We wanted that one at home,” Teague said. “We’ll have to go on the road and try to get the next one.”
Notes: The Celtics had hoped Allen would be able to return, but his ailing right ankle had a setback after feeling relatively good Monday. … The Hawks shot just 35 percent (29 of 83). … Boston held a 45-40 edge on the boards, even while collecting just three at the offensive end.