If Paul Pierce considers the NBA Finals his stage to prove he’s the best player in basketball, he only has between two and four more chances to re-establish the position he earned in ’08, when the Finals MVP declared himself the League’s top dog.
Three games into the 2010 Finals, Pierce is struggling. In Game 1 he put up a team-high 24 points, but since then has averaged 12.5 points on 30 percent (7-for-23) shooting from the field. In last night’s Game 3, while Ray Allen was playing like Ray Romano, Pierce needed to step up and deliver in crunch time. Otherwise, Kevin Garnett (25 pts) might as well have been playing for the Timberwolves again, trying to do it all alone.
He didn’t. Pierce hit one big three in the fourth quarter, but his only other bucket was a driving layup and-one with about 40 seconds left; and he missed the subsequent free throw that would have cut L.A.’s lead to four. After making headlines by declaring during Game 2 that the Celtics weren’t coming back to L.A. — essentially predicting a home court sweep in Boston — now Pierce’s only hope at winning a second championship hinges on forcing a return trip to the Lakers’ gym.
Asked after Game 3 if he was being overconfident, Pierce said: “I’m not going to win a game in L.A. and say we’re coming back. I mean, no, that means I’m saying we’re going to lose at home. I’m confident in my ballclub, so if I do say that type of stuff it’s all in good spirit. I want to win, just like they want to win. We’ve got to go back to L.A., just got to do it the hard way. Not a problem.”
In the first two games of the series, Ron Artest was credited for slowing Pierce down. Artest’s strength and discipline to not fall for Pierce’s usual array of pump fakes and feints makes him almost the perfect defender to use against Pierce. But Artest was on the bench early with foul trouble in Game 3, meaning Pierce was often matched up with Luke Walton, and he still couldn’t get an offensive rhythm going.
“With me, I thought I missed shots in the first half with some good looks,” Pierce was quoted in the Boston Globe. “I’ll take those looks all night long, the ones I got. It wasn’t about my shots, it’s about going out there as a team trying to win the game. We broke down on little things. That’s the difference between winning and losing in the championship and playoffs, the difference in one or two plays. And I just thought we broke down on little plays down the stretch, giving [Derek] Fisher some open looks on the elbow, that really cost us at the end.”
Pierce said the Celtics had something of an impromptu players-only meeting immediately after Game 3, and promised to bounce back strong in Game 4.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with Pierce (or any athlete) making direct or indirect guarantees. Having been in enough locker rooms and in press conferences, I’ve seen how some reporters basically bait a player into making a guarantee, then write it up like the player acted without provocation.
And some people ridicule when the prediction doesn’t come true, but at the same time, would anybody want their team’s star — or any player on the roster — going into games not 100 percent confident that they’ll win? True, nobody goes into an NBA season expecting to go 82-0, then fo’, fo’, fo’ and fo’ in the playoffs, but predicting a home sweep in the Finals is better than saying, “Well, um, I hope we’ll win.” So if Pierce were to predict the Celtics take the next two games at home, then finish off the Lakers in Game 6, that’s his role as team leader.
“I feel great,” Pierce said. “I know we still haven’t played our best basketball and we’re capable of winning these games. Even the game we won, we didn’t feel like we played well. Our best basketball is going to come and I know it’s going to come before it’s too late.”