BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett was in street clothes. Ray Allen fouled out. The Boston Celtics' Big Three was down to one, and Paul Pierce was ready.
The MVP of last year's NBA Finals scored 26 points, hitting one jumper to tie the game at the end of regulation and three more in the final 77 seconds of overtime on Tuesday night to help the Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 106-104 and take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven playoff series.
"I just thought when Ray fouled out it was time for me to really step up," said Pierce, who scored 12 points in the 10 minutes after Allen left the game. "Better late than never."
Rajon Rondo scored 28 points with 11 assists and eight rebounds, and Kendrick Perkins had 16 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocks for Boston. The Celtics could finish the Bulls off in Chicago on Thursday in Game 6; if not, the decisive seventh game would be in Boston on Saturday.
Ben Gordon scored 26 and Joakim Noah had 11 points and 17 rebounds for Chicago, but Brad Miller missed the potential game-tying free throws with 2 seconds left in overtime after Rondo fouled him to prevent an easy layup.
"Paul Pierce was unbelievable," Noah said. "Guys are hitting crazy shot after crazy shot. It's all about who's going to make that shot at the end of the game. We had our chances, and that's what makes it so tough. But we'll be back: I still feel that we can win the series."
It was the third time in five games the teams have needed overtime, a surprising first-round struggle for the defending NBA champions. This time, they did it with two of the Big Three on the bench: Garnett is out for what could be the entire playoff run with strained ligaments in his right knee, and Allen -- who hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2 -- fouled out with 5:27 left in regulation.
"When you've got Ray fouled out of the game and you're searching for bodies, it didn't look good," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And we dug down and won the game."
Pierce made a jumper to give Boston a 102-101 lead with 1:17 left, then hit another with 37 seconds to play to make it 104-101. Boston's defense nearly forced a stop, but Tony Allen fouled Gordon while he was attempting a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left; Gordon hit all three free throws to tie it 104-all.
Pierce got the ball and dribbled down the clock before hitting a long 2-pointer over John Salmons with 3.4 seconds remaining. Pierce played 50 minutes, 40 seconds -- all but 2:20 of the game.
"He was just doing what he was supposed to be doing: being the captain, being Paul Pierce, 'the Truth," said Celtics forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who scored 21. "You've seen it a dozen times; I think since I've been here I've seen it a million times, so nothing surprised me."
The Bulls called a timeout and got the ball in to Miller, who had a surprisingly clear path to the basket but appeared to sail a layup wide. The clock expired and the Boston Garden crowd celebrated, but the referees immediately huddled, called a foul on Rondo and put Miller on the line with 2 seconds left.
He missed the first one badly, then tried to miss the second on purpose but failed to hit the rim.
Miller got stitches in his mouth after the game, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said it should have been called a flagrant foul. Kirk Hinrich also needed stitches, for a cut above his eye, Del Negro said.
"We got a lot of guys getting head shots this series -- I mean a whole lot of them -- and it hasn't been a flagrant. So everybody's had to shake off these high hits," Miller said. "I didn't see it but I felt it. ... There was blood on the floor. I don't even know if they got it all cleaned off."
The Bulls led 77-66 early in the fourth before the Celtics scored nine in a row to make it 83-82 with 4:27 left. But the run was costly because Ray Allen fouled out 18 seconds after hitting a key 3-pointer. Gordon hit a leaner from the right side to give the Bulls the lead with 16 seconds left.
But Pierce sank a 15-foot spinner from the key to tie it at 93 with 10.5 seconds left and send it into overtime.