In the city that brought us the Boston Massacre and Brady, and Larry Legend and the Freedom Trail, Paul Pierce is a survivor. Thirteen seasons, over 20,000 points and one championship in and the Truth still can’t be handled. Nothing has ever stopped him. Not record-setting losing streaks (18 straight in 2007), not coaching changes (Rick Pitino to Jim O’Brien to John Carroll to Doc Rivers), not a bad reputation (egotistical, actor), not even an encounter with death.
He thrives in hard times.
In the 1998 NBA Draft, Boston’s front office beamed about a skinny kid from Germany named Dirk Nowitzki. Instead, they ended up with Pierce, who fell to pick No. 10 for no good reason at all. In September of 2000, Pierce was ambushed and stabbed nearly a dozen times across the face, back and chest in a Boston nightclub, coming a half-inch away from death. Yet, he came back just a few weeks later to score 28 points on opening night. In 2002 at the World Championships, he clashed repeatedly with the coaching staff and was singled out as the problem in a dysfunctional sixth-place finish. The next season, Pierce averaged nearly 26 points a game and had statistically, the best playoff run of his career. In 2007, Boston won only 24 times as Pierce missed 34 games, almost all of them overshadowed by trade rumors. The very next year, the Celtics won it all behind Pierce, the Finals MVP.
“In some ways, he may even look forward to it,” says Patrick Roy, Pierce’s coach at Inglewood (Calif.) High School. “Looking for that challenge, looking for that adversity where he can overcome and succeed.”
“You are going to have your ups and your downs,” says Pierce. “Some people are fortunate to play on good teams their whole career. Some aren’t. But at the end of the day, you have to look at yourself in the mirror also, to want to be a leader, to want to lead that team.”
He’s been tagged as everything from malcontent to selfish to assassin to champion. “I just try to give the game what it needs,” is how he puts it. Yet the man is still breathing, still competing, still climbing towards the Gardens’ 21 retired numbers.
This is the teen from Inglewood who used to peel out of bed and workout at 5:30 in the morning for a shot like this. This is a Laker at heart turned Celtic soul.
“I got four years left, and that might be it,” Pierce told the Boston Globe this summer. “I’m playing for a lot – myself, my team, memories. I have a lot of pride.”
Kobe is electrifying. LeBron is otherworldly. Dwight Howard is monstrous. But how can one describe Pierce? He is a mystery to even those poor souls assigned to guard him. “Ah, I don’t know,” Phoenix guard Mickael Pietrus struggles. “He, ah…I don’t know. He seems slow…but is quick. I don’t know.” Boston’s head coach Doc Rivers calls Pierce a chameleon.
He’s not really a shooter, but can go through hot stretches. Just last season, he shot over 41 percent from behind the arc. He’s not exactly a jolting athlete. But talk about his hops with Chris Bosh, who shriveled up in pain under the basket after Pierce slammed one on him last winter. Pierce does nothing fantastically, but everything deadly. Rivers says he is the ultimate utility man. Believes Ryan, “He has every weapon.”
Pierce plays at a tempo that’s impossible to duplicate. He moves with an ungraspable rhythm, confusing defenders with his body language until he has them on his hip, reacting instead of attacking. Pietrus confesses the 13-year NBA veteran gets everyone with the same moves over and over again.
“You never catch him going too fast,” adds Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson. “You never catch anybody speeding him up. He always does exactly what he wants to do. And that’s tough to guard.”
Call it a survival tactic. His high school coach believes deception is a huge part of Pierce’s success.
“A lot of people look at him and they might think that he is slow,” admits Roy. “But his first step is so incredibly fast, I think he’s able to allude a lot of people into thinking that he’s slow.”
It all comes together to create one of the best one-on-one players of the modern era. As other wing players came and went – Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter – Pierce remained consistent.
“As you get older, you start to develop other interests and you have kids and some things that you did before, you kind of let fall to the wayside,” explains Pierce’s teammate Ray Allen. “And then your game slips a little bit. And then you have to go to different ways to play or you don’t shoot certain shots or make certain moves.”
Yet, that never happened to Pierce. As the years went on, former teammate James Posey saw Pierce study harder. Tony Allen, another former teammate, didn’t start running sprints and lifting weights before practice until he started noticing the Captain do it. If anyone has the right to be selfish, it’s Pierce, he says, because of what he puts into this. Even Boston’s general manager Danny Ainge once admitted that Larry Bird never worked this hard.
“Coming into the Draft I was known as a scorer,” recalls Pierce. “Throughout the course of my career, I’ve worked on a lot of things on both sides of the ball. Even coming into this season, I just try to pride myself on being the best overall player that I can be.”
It also doesn’t hurt that his game always surfaces when it’s least welcomed. Pierce scored 22 first-half points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, annoying Orlando so soundly with his timely playmaking that Dwight Howard eventually clotheslined him with a series-altering flagrant foul.
“It was hilarious,” says Ryan. “He was frustrating the whole team with his bullshit.”
His step-back jump shot, the one that he beat Miami with at the buzzer in Game 3 of their first round playoff series last year, is normally difficult for players moving to their strong side. But Pierce can make it. His defender on that game-winner, Dorell Wright, still doesn’t understand it. In between laughs, Wright recalls, “He just said, ‘That’s my spot. I make that shot all the time.’”
But besides the work, there’s luck. Pierce is lucky to still be in Boston. He’s lucky that he never had a serious injury on the court.
“And not only that,” says Ray Allen, “you have to be on a team that is conducive and catering to what you bring to the table. So it’s never something that you can determine. I think guys are lucky if you can play for a long period of time.”