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An Ode To Paul Pierce, An All Time Great

Clippers small forward Paul Pierce announced Monday that the 2016-17 NBA season would be his last. The message came through a video from the Players’ Tribune:

Watching that video broke my heart. Growing up a Celtics fan, Pierce has always been my favorite player.  And watching him tell the camera that this upcoming season would be his last, older and grayer with a lined face, clenching his hands together, it was clear that this really was a difficult decision for him. You can tell that he doesn’t want to go, to step away from the game he loves so much and gave everything to.

That commitment is one of the reasons I’ve loved Pierce so much as a player. Obviously there’s the story about the time in September of 2000 when Pierce was stabbed 11 times, left the hospital a week later, and still played every preseason and regular season game that season.

One of my favorite Pierce anecdotes is from 2004 when he cracked four teeth against the Suns, slipped in a mouthpiece and helped win the game. The next day, he underwent seven hours of dental surgery. The day after that, he made the game-winning shot against Charlotte. No matter what Lakers fans may say about wheelchairs, Pierce is a tough dude.

He had to be tough. The way he played required it. He was never a transcendent athlete, so he had to get by on his skill and savvy. He made a living on up-fakes, herky-jerky drives and getting to the line. His style inspired me to model my game after him as a young player, because he was proof that I could be a great without incredible athleticism (I couldn’t).

Pierce was so good at isolating in the mid-range area. He used his misdirection and strength to great advantage; I’ve never seen anybody make so many contested, contact jumpers (besides Kobe Laker fans, no need to get worked up). Pierce would even lean into his defender after a shot fake and take the hit on his left shoulder to create space to get his shot off. His ability to make tough shots over outstretched arms bailed the Celtics out again and again, like in this clip from Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals:

I can think of very few guys who hit as many big shots over the last 15 years as Pierce. He’s right there with Kobe and Dirk as the best clutch performers of the era. He never shrank from the moment; in fact, he thrived on it, especially against the best competition. My personal favorite was this one from that fantastic 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat:

That’s an off-the-bounce three right in the mug of the greatest player alive. Pardon me, but that takes tremendous cojones. Not many players would have had the guts to take and make that shot. Yet I feel Pierce doesn’t quite get his due praise from fans and talking heads. His name is regularly left out when people discuss who the best players of his generation are.

Part of that is because he toiled for much of his career on a bad team. By the time Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in the summer of 2007, Pierce had been in the league for nine years and was on the back end of his prime.

And to be fair, many of those years were forgettable. Besides the run to the 2002 conference finals,  a series which included an incredible 26-point comeback in Game 3 against the Nets, Pierce’s Celtics weren’t exactly successful. They made the playoffs every year from 2002-2005, but never made a deep push after 2002, and suffered a number of embarrassments, including when Pierce was ejected from Game 6 of the 2005 first round series against Indiana and a 27-point blowout loss at home in Game 7 a few nights later.

Up until then, Pierce had been acting like one of the NBA’s many divas. He was petulant, complained for calls, and mailed in games. But after that Pacers series, something happened: he carried himself like the leader he was supposed to be, taking the challenge of being the best player on a young team, outplaying opposing stars, and doing it all with a great attitude. Even as his team got worse and the trade rumors intensified, Pierce continued to play and act with the poise of all the Celtics greats.

And then karma kicked in. Finally, mercifully, Pierce got help with the acquisitions of Garnett and Allen, and the Celtics embarked on one of basketball’s most magical seasons. The Big Three led Boston to 66 wins in the 2007-08, set the record for a single-season turnaround, and earned the number one seed in the East. Pierce enjoyed every step of the way, finally surrounded by teammates who could help him win.

The playoffs brought a number of obstacles. First, the Celtics needed seven games to take down the Atlanta Hawks. Then they had another seven-game series against young LeBron James and the Cavaliers. In that Game 7, Pierce went shot for shot with LeBron, finishing with 41 points and a couple of huge free throws to seal the win.

After dispatching the Pistons in six games, the Celtics were matched up with the Lakers in the Finals. Pierce’s heroics started right away with Game 1, when he hurt his knee in the third quarter and had to be taken to the locker room in a wheelchair. Every Celtics fan saw their chances of a 17th banner slipping away… until Pierce came back. He returned to the court and hit a few huge threes, including a classic And-1 three-pointer, and the Celtics won the game.

Pierce went for 28 in Game 2 to stave off Kobe’s big night. In Game 4, he switched to guard Bryant, and Bryant was never the same again in the series. That was a huge part of the Celtics’ 24-point comeback win to take a 3-1 lead.

And then, of course, the 131-92 decimation in Game 6. Pierce got the Celtics going and they never looked back. Here’s an excerpt from Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball about the clincher:

“With ten minutes to go in Game 6 and Boston locked into the title, the Lakers called time-out and Pierce turned to face the crowd behind the Celtics’ bench, watching fans dance to the arena sound system music and nodding happily. You could see him soaking in the moment. He wasn’t even doing it for the cameras; it was one of those times when you could study someone from a distance and read every single thing he was thinking. He was thinking about the past ten years, and all the bad things that had happened, and all the times he’d given up hope, and now he was reminding himself to enjoy the moment. You could see it. All of it.”

When Pierce got up on stage and received the Finals MVP trophy, he turned to his teammates, thrusted the trophy in the air, and screamed to the rafters. Simmons was right. You could tell how much this meant to him, how losing all those years had killed him, how happy he was that he had solidified his place in Celtics lore.

That season was so special to me, as a nine-year-old fan, and what I saw from Pierce seemed like nothing less than the highest level of heroism. He did whatever it took to help his team win, whether it be getting others involved, taking over when he needed to, or guarding other-worldly talents and holding his own. That alone should earn him a place as one of the best players of the era.

And it didn’t stop there. The next year he came up big against the Bulls without Kevin Garnett, exemplified by this shot:

The next year, he destroyed the Magic in the Eastern Finals to the tune of 24.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, and 52% FG. He came near minutes and a few fair referees from winning his second title that season (that’s a whole different story), and it broke my heart. I feel certain that he would be remembered differently if he had two titles instead of one, but thanks to the refs we’ll never find out (sorry, I’m in full homer mode now).

From there, Pierce’s career started to decline. He was still good, but his athleticism was eroding. He played valiantly for the awesome 2012 team that came out of nowhere to take the Heat to seven in the conference finals, but he wasn’t quick enough to stay with LeBron. However, he still had his moments, like the shot from that series featured earlier in the article. He proved to everyone that he was alive and kicking, that he could still reach into that bag of tricks and whup you with its contents.

When Pierce was traded to the Nets on draft night in 2013, I was crushed. Here was my favorite player, who I had assumed would be in Celtics green until his retirement, and now he was on another team. A division rival no less. The draft picks acquired in that trade set the Celtics up for the bright future they have now, but that didn’t make it any easier seeing Pierce in another jersey.

Watching Pierce play for another team was an interesting experience. It was like the pride a kid feels when his dad does something cool in front of his friends. When Pierce hit clutch shot after clutch shot with the Nets in the 2014 Playoffs, I was not only unsurprised, but validated as a Celtics fan. Yeah, watch this, Pierce is gonna hit this shot right in someone’s face and then trot back down the court talking all the crap in the world. Isn’t that a great feeling? Don’t you love having him on your team?

When Pierce delivered time and time again for the Wizards in the next year’s playoffs, I expected each shot to fly through the net before it did. The media and fans on Twitter started commenting on what I had known all along: Pierce is one of the all-time big shot-makers. He’s one of the best players in the history of the most hallowed franchise in basketball, a great natural scorer who became a great winner.

Pierce’s numbers for his career? 20 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.6 APG. At his best, he was good for 25-6-4, which puts him right there with the NBA’s best. Kobe, Tim Duncan, and Garnett have gotten their reverential send-offs from the media. The same is coming for Dirk when he finally hangs it up. I’m not saying that Pierce is on the level of those guys, but he’s better than many give him credit for. When he retires next summer, I hope everyone understands what a great player and tough clutch competitor he was. I know I do.

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