Gibson says Pierce has the best footwork off the dribble of any player in the League. During their six years as teammates in Boston, Pierce used to force Tony Allen to guard him every day. Check me, Pierce used to tell him. If you go against me in practice, there’s nothing that will surprise you when you guard LeBron James or Joe Johnson. Tony Allen says, “He’s the most confident person in the world.”
Yet Pierce has never been considered a true superstar. Despite the championship, the Finals MVP, the game-winners and the 12-straight seasons averaging at least 18 points a game, he can’t get his due. Maybe that’s because he plays in Boston, which always seemed more interested in the heart, grit and attitude of a player rather than their style. “Flashy players,” says Gibson, “are the guys who normally get a lot of the attention.”
Or perhaps it was Pierce’s own fault. Boston doesn’t take kindly to athletes who fail to win or chuck threes and gloat or toss up “gang signs” in a playoff game or argue a no-call by showing up to the postgame podium with bandages wrapped around their face or get ejected from a playoff game and leave swinging their jersey like a helicopter or sulk during the midst of a last-place season.
During his younger years, Pierce did all of that.
“I’m sure there are going to be people who are not going to give Pierce his due because he is connected with a whole other world that they don’t like in basketball,” says Ryan, “which is unfortunate for him with those people because he is a truly great Celtic.”
Rivers always warns that to be considered a great team in Boston, you have to win multiple championships. The Celtics still believe they are owed one ring, whether from Kevin Garnett’s 2009 injury or last year’s 13-point Game 7 meltdown. As the best team in the East, with 47 All-Star appearances amongst their core and a predatory defensive mentality, Boston has all the credentials to add that eighteenth banner. But how long can they play like this? Can Garnett’s knee hold up? Will Shaquille O’Neal make a difference?
“It’s going to be a long hold-your-breath, cross-your-fingers, hope-everyone-stays-healthy, hope-they-can-maintain-and-be-ready-to-go in April type of season,” says Ryan. “Because if the playoffs started tonight, they would kick ass right to the Finals.”
Eventually, it’ll all come back to Pierce and how much he has left. It’s the Captain’s team, just as it has always been since he took his Draft snubbing and fanatically outplayed those picked before him; since former Celtic Antoine Walker surprisingly divulged that it was Pierce’s team way back when hardly any believed him; since Pierce complained in 2006 that he was just a great player on a horrible team; since he finally smelled the scent of true victory in 2008. He’s living in the moment for a team without a clue how long it will last, led by a player who’s hoping his game can survive a little longer.
“We are just finding ways to grind it out, man,” says Pierce. “We don’t have healthy bodies and you don’t know who is going to be out there night in and night out, so we gotta win differently it seems like every night. That’s the way it’s going to be. We aren’t making excuses. We just gotta find a way.”
No one really wants to talk about it, but Paul Pierce is on the cusp whether you realize it or not. This season, this moment, could be his defining act.
“We’ve got the Mount Rushmore here,” says Ryan. “We have the four faces. Nobody can argue the four Mount Rushmore faces here: Cousy, Russell, Bird, Havlicek.”
A second championship would force Pierce into that company. Some will argue Pierce is merely a good ballplayer and not a defining one. But to stand by that, they must overlook a playing lifetime that is quickly coming full circle, a career not necessarily in its twilight, but without a need to prove much else. Complete.
Go to Boston, wind around the endless maze of streets, down past the Holocaust Memorial and on to a frenzied Causeway Street and into the TD Garden and you will see Paul Pierce in the same realm as always. There he is slithering into the lane and finding Shaquille O’Neal with a left-handed pass for a dunk. Another time, Indiana guard T.J. Ford switches onto Pierce 20 feet from the hoop and is consistently kept so off-balance that Pierce backs him down under the rim for an easy layup. At the end of the night, it all adds up to another Boston win and the most unassuming 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds possible – a triple-double capper on Pierce’s NBA Player of the Week averages of 21.7 points, 8.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds.
“Paul discovered a long time ago the kind of player he wants to be,” Indiana coach and Pierce’s former coach in Boston, Jim O’Brien, said afterwards. “He wanted to be one of the best in the world and he is. Nothing he does surprises me.”
Philosopher Carl Jung once hypothesized that we process knowledge visually. Our eyes can direct our brain. The deeper the feelings of a visual experience, the more we can believe them. That’s Pierce’s problem. His game’s imagery is not always appealing and hasn’t always helped his popularity. But that should never stop anyone from appreciating Pierce for what he is.
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