Paul Pierce faced a strange sight for two reasons. One, he was facing the Boston Celtics and, two, he was doing it as a reserve player for just the fourth time in his NBA career.
Pierce wasn’t even supposed to play in this game but his broken hand healed earlier than expected so he checked into a game after the opening tip for the first time since Feb. 9, 2007.
Pierce’s return seemed to spark things and it also marked the first time in nearly a month the Nets played with their entire projected starting lineup even if they didn’t play together for one second Tuesday night.
Still Pierce’s presence seemed to transform a sluggish start into a lead the Nets would not relinquish over the final 40-plus minutes in a 104-96 victory over the Celtics.
Pierce played while wearing a protective glove over his hand and delivered the line of the night in a postgame locker room able to enjoy consecutive victories for the first time all season.
“It’s uncomfortable,” Pierce said. “But as I continue to wear it, take it to the movies, I’ll get used to it.”
The fact that the Nets finally have a winning streak made Joe Johnson shake his head in disbelief. Still less than a week after Johnson said the Nets had no chemistry after their 30-point loss to the Knicks, they looked more cohesive.
“Aw man, I didn’t even think about that,” Johnson said. “You have to smile and chuckle because it’s not something I envisioned.”
Head coach Jason Kidd liked what he saw with Pierce coming off the bench, but he wouldn’t necessarily commit to more games with the 36-year-old not starting.
“I liked what I saw,” Kidd said. “I liked him being a leader with that second group.”
Kidd also had to like what he saw from his other returning player.
Deron Williams made a mostly seamless transition back to full game speed with a season-high 25 points, scoring seven of them in the fourth quarter when Boston attempted a late charge. Williams also added seven assists while shooting 10-of-16.
“I just tried to get going,” Williams said. “I knew watching the games that we were a little stagnant and we needed to pick up the tempo and the pace and so I just wanted to try to get the team going early.”
Brook Lopez continued to be a force in the middle with an efficient 24-point night on 10-of-13 shooting. He had two points in the fourth quarter but they were big ones as his two free throws put Brooklyn ahead 99-91 with 1:25 remaining.
Kevin Garnett also played well in his 26 minutes with 11 points and nine rebounds. Five Nets reached double figures but Pierce was not among them, instead opting to do other things with his time on the court such as passing and rebounding.
Instead of relying on Pierce, the Nets counted on Williams, who scored five straight points to help restore some order after the Celtics made it 89-81 with eight minutes remaining. Williams also hit a 15-foot fadeaway that gave the Nets a 10-point lead with 3:04 remaining.
“It’s a huge difference,” Garnett said. “Not only does he put the refs in situations to make calls, he understands flow, not to say our other guys don’t, but that’s the reason he starts.”
In his first stint coming off the bench, Pierce played 10:10. He attempted one 3-pointer but served more of a facilitator role with three assists as the Nets went from being down 14-13 to being up 37-33. They opened their biggest first quarter lead of the season (31-20).
In fact the best things to emerge from Brooklyn’s seventh win in 21 games was some resiliency in the face of adversity on two occasions. Boston initially threatened by getting within 47-45 on an 18-footer by Avery Bradley with 3:46 remaining in the first half, but the Nets closed out the second quarter with a 9-2 run with Pierce getting a rest.
“We responded,” Lopez said. “Bottom line is we responded and that’s the first time we’ve done that in a while this season.”
Pierce was on the bench again when the Nets’ fortitude was tested over the first 2:21 of the second half as Boston ripped off a 13-4 run and tied the game at 60-60 on a 3-pointer by Jared Sullinger, forcing a timeout. Instead of looking like many previous third quarters, the Nets ripped off 10 straight points that started an 18-6 run.
They did so in a variety of ways. The run began with Williams hitting a layup, featured a nice layup by Joe Johnson, a steal by Williams and outlet pass to Anderson for a dunk and a nice post-up dunk by Lopez.
Pierce returned with 4:08 remaining and the Nets holding a 78-66 lead. He nearly took a 3-pointer on one of his first possessions back but dumped it inside to Blatche, who instantly kicked it out to Williams for an open 3-pointer that extended the lead to 81-68.
“Obviously it was huge,” Pierce said of Williams. “We look like a different team out there.”
Follow Nets beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.