Monday, July 15, 2013

The Ultimate Celtic

Paul Pierce: The Ultimate Celtic

          The first round series against the Knicks was the last time we will ever see Celtic legend Paul Pierce and comrade Kevin Garnett wear the great Celtic green. The KG era has come to an abrupt end in the last six months. First, it was Doc and Danny deciding to rebuild. Then it was Doc’s uncertainty to return. Then Danny sent him to L.A. for a first round pick in 2015. It was a great run, one NBA Title, two Finals appearances, four Eastern Conference Finals appearances and five Atlantic Division Titles. For Paul Pierce it’s these last six years that took his career from a great player on just a bad team to a future Hall of Famer. But, we can’t remember Pierce and the KG era by what happened in the 2013 Knicks series. All the wheels fell off for them. Age hit the team like a train. Numerous injuries took a brutal toll on Pierce’s legs and it showed in his dismal shooting. But, we cannot remember Paul by this series. Yes, it may have ended badly for him and Kevin. But, we must remember the greatness and prominence these two brought back to Boston for us. The amount of Hall-of-Fame memories Paul Pierce gave Celtic nation.

Paul Pierce was never the most athletic player out on the floor. He was never the quickest or strongest. Paul Pierce had one thing throughout his entire career that led him to the brilliant numbers that he will end his career with: Confidence. Some may even go as far as saying Pierce is a little cocky the way he plays. Off the court he never talks much trash. But, if he is in a zone, look closely at the cameras and you can see his mouth running. Pierce carries around a certain swagger on the court that can’t be beat. He never does is in a flashy way that pops out at you like a Kobe or LeBron. Pierce just gets the job done.

Paul Pierce is the ultimate Celtic because he sat through nine up and down seasons with a franchise that was far below the expectation. From the moment he stepped on the court his rookie season, Pierce was a twenty points a night guy. But, in just a moment’s flash Pierce’s career and life flashed before his eyes. Just inches from his death, Pierce survived a brutal stabbing, in which he suffered more than ten stab wounds, and joined his teammates in training camp just weeks later. The front office contacted Pierce and said they would trade him out of Boston if he felt unsafe. Pierce denied that offer and said he wanted to stay in Boston because the fans showed him how much he meant to them and the organization. Even through the horrific stabbing incident in before 2000 season, Pierce didn’t miss a single game. The stabbing had changed the way he played. He had upped his level of play to new heights. He seemed to be playing angry out on the court. All of the anger built up from his near death experience was let out on the court and helped drive the Celtics to wins. And the revolving door that was the Celtics roster from 1998-2006, Paul Pierce was the captain every season, played every game and was always the leading scorer and even sometimes leading rebounder. He was the teams on and off the court leader. And if the team snuck out a win on any given night, you’re probably crediting Pierce for a job well done on leading the team to victory.  The team wasn’t all bad though. 2001-2004 they were a playoff team on the back of Pierce and Antoine Walker. And in some of those playoff games Pierce put together some of Celtic history’s biggest games. In the 2002 playoffs, he dropped forty-six on the 76ers and sent them packing to lead Boston to its first playoff series win since 1992. Just later in the playoffs, down twenty-one headed into the fourth quarter against a good Nets team, Paul Pierce lit it up with nineteen in the final frame and was the catalyst to the best 4th quarter comeback in NBA playoff history at the time.  Then there is yet another classic, Game 4 against the Pacers in the 2003 playoffs when Pierce dropped thirty-two points in the second half to lead them to yet another playoff series victory. In 2004, Pierce’s good play helped lead the team to the playoffs to only be swept by the Pacers in the first round. And the year after the Celtics lost again in the first round to the Pacers. Pierce again leading the charge for the team. Throughout those four playoff years one thing was a constant: Pierce. He would always step up his play in the big spotlight. He loved to display his great isolation game around the elbows come crunch time. Yes, Pierce was also at times a young kid who made dumb mistakes and acted out. But, he was the reason for any of the Celtics success and he knew. Maybe that got to his head a little. But nonetheless, those four straight years of playoff berths were magical with Pierce at the helm, but after that... things seemed to turn for the worst. Statistically, 2005 was Pierce’s best season, Pierce was lighting it up against some of the NBA’s best superstars on a daily basis. But, those performances didn’t turn into wins for the team as they went from straight playoff berths to a thirty-three win team. Things were looking like the Pitino years all over again. The team looked to have no real chemistry. They couldn’t draft anybody good. (Joe Johnson is the exception from 2001, but of course he was shipped out after only 50 games with Boston and look where he has ended up).  The 2006 season was a rough one for Paul. An injury early in the year really rattled his season. After the stress fracture in his foot the team told him to take his time to return so they could tank and get a better draft pick. The Celtics went on an eighteen game losing streak at a point in time during the year. Paul Pierce then infamously claimed that it was a case of “just another good player stuck on a bad team”.  Thing is, Pierce had opportunities to leave in free agency if he wanted. And the moment Danny Ainge arrived on the scene in 2003 Pierce was part of a bunch of trade rumors swirling around the organization. But, Boston knew that Pierce was the real deal by almost single handedly winning three playoff series for the Celtics and leading them to a conference final. He was an All-Star and a premier scorer. So yes, Boston would do anything to pay him top dollar, but if he hated it so bad he could’ve just gone. But he didn’t. That’s the thing. Paul was a pretty immature kid in his early years. But, he was the Celtics best player and go-to guy. The Celtics needed Paul and Paul needed the Celtics. When he signed a three year extension after the 2006 season, his loyalty was shown to all the fans of Boston and the greatest organization in the NBA. And, because of that loyalty Pierce was finally rewarded. His reward? Help. In a matter of two days the Celtics went from worst to first in picking up Garnett and Allen. Pierce’s loyalty was finally rewarded; help had arrived now it was time to get the job done.

And of course, we all know the story here. The Celtics and their new Big Three era won sixty-six games that year and ended up winning the NBA title. This was the moment for all Celtics fans, particularly Pierce fans, to rejoice. Pierce played magnificent in the playoffs out dueling LeBron James and Kobe Bryant leading the Celtics to their 17th Championship. No one can forget the Game 7 of the East semi-finals where Pierce dropped forty-one points on LeBron and many of those points coming late in the game. Also Game 1 of the Finals when Pierce leaves the game on a wheelchair with a knee injury, only to return minutes later and drain three three’s and lead the Celtics to a victory. Then in Game 4, Pierce put Kobe on a leash and took over leading the Celtics to a win on a twenty-four point comeback. Pierce was a master on offense. He was an efficient scorer and also a great facilitator for the Celtics. Pierce was the heart and soul of this team. The fans wanted him to be the heart and soul of this team; we’d been waiting for that moment his entire career. That moment I’m talking about is during the blowout in the clinching Game 6. When Pierce got taken out early in the 4th he went to the bench, stood up and watched the crowd go ballistic as they were watching their team win a title. You could see the grin on Paul’s face. Watching the fans rejoice as Paul did too. He had finally overcome all of the demons he had. He wasn’t just a good player on a bad team anymore; he was a legend. Paul Pierce would be remembered in Boston with guys like Russell, Cousy, Havilcek, McHale, Parrish, and Bird (to name a few). He would be able to come to the TD Garden and look up in the rafters and find the 2008 Champions banner and say: “I did that. I helped raise that.” Bill Simmons put it best in this quote in his Book of Basketball about Pierce winning the title:

“We watched that guy grow up. We watched him become a man. We believed in him, we gave up on him, and we believed in him again. I don’t mean to sound like the old man in Pretty Woman, but part of me wanted to walk onto the court Tuesday night and just tell Pierce, “It’s hard for me to say this without sounding condescending, but I’m proud of you.” We spend so much time complaining about sports and being disappointed that our favorite players never end up being who we wanted them to be, but in Pierce’s case, he became everything we wanted him to be. When he held up the Finals MVP trophy after the game and screamed to the crowd in delight, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier for a Boston athlete. How many guys stick with a crummy franchise for 10 solid years, then get a chance to lead that same team to a championship? Does that ever happen in sports anymore?”

That’s about as perfect a quote as you could find for Pierce. We loved him. Even through all the shit, we loved him. We had to, he was our only guy. Seeing him stand on the podium, after Game 6 holding the Finals MVP trophy up to show to all the Boston fans as the place erupts, you can see that same grin from thirty minutes earlier on his face. It was honestly beautiful to see. You were so happy because the Celtics has just won the finals for the first time in like a billion years, but you were even happier to see Pierce standing on top of the world, the king of the NBA.  Pure happiness and rejoice. Everyone in Boston felt that with Pierce that night. Thinking of the day he was drafted, the day he almost died from the stabbing, the days of his young playoff heroics, the days of the struggle and now the most recent days of winning and being a champion.

Those feelings continued on an emotional first game of the 2009 season, Pierce was in tears while receiving the Larry O’Brien trophy, his ring and raising the banner. That night was another night to remember for Pierce’s career. That showed just how much he wanted this ring and how much it meant to him to get in Boston. Seeing Pierce beside himself out on the court in front eighteen thousand screaming supporters really warms the heart. It brought back all those same memories from just months earlier when Pierce was raising the Finals MVP trophy in front of everyone in the Garden. Sitting thinking of those moments can just give me the chills.

The Celtics and the Big Three rolled their way to a two- seed in the Eastern Conference in 2009, but a late-season injury to Kevin Garnett put an end to Boston’s title hopes. They were able to win a series against the Bulls with most of the work being done by Allen and Pierce. But, a very good Magic team was too much for a Garnett-less Celtics squad. The team’s core was getting older by the day and the title window was closing on the Celtics fast.

The 2010 season was a little rockier than the two previous years for the Big Three. They were only able to muster up a four-seed in the East. But, in their first round series against Miami, Pierce was the catalyst on offense and actually hit a game winning step-back fade away in Game 3 to put the Celtics up 3-0 in the series and practically clinch it. Pierce’s clutch step-back jumper has been his go-to crunch time move since he’s entered the league. Then he helped outduel LeBron for a second time in three years and beat Cleveland again in seven games with a well balanced attack from the Big Three. The Celtics then went on to play the favored Magic in the East Final and the Celtics took care of business in six games on the back of Pierce’s thirty-one point thirteen rebound performance in the clinching Game 6. So, for the second time in three years the Celtics were facing off in the Finals against their nemesis the Lakers. Pierce led the Celtics in this series valiantly. He led the team in scoring four out of the seven games and of course was the crunch time go-to guy.  The Celtics were up three games to two heading back to L.A. when in Game 6, Celtics starting center Kendrick Perkins went down with a torn ACL and the Celtics dropped Game 6. Game 7 without Kendrick Perkins would be a tough one and the Celtics had the Lakers on the ropes late in the game. But a late game run by the Lakers put them ahead and kept them ahead for good. The Lakers had won the championship. One could put up the argument that if the Celtics has Perkins in Game 7 Pierce & Co. would have two championships and Pierce surely would have won the Finals MVP that year too. They were five points away from it. Pierce did all he could in the 2010 Finals and came up just short. It was heartbreaking, but the Celtics weren’t done.

The 2011 season was a disappointment for Boston. They looked old as rocks and limped into the postseason losing in the second round to the NBA runner-up Miami Heat. The 2012 Celtics all came back for ‘one more ride’ according to KG. The Celtics for a second year in a row limped into the playoffs as a four-seed. They beat Hawks in the first round. Pierce laid out a classic performance in Game 2 with thirty-six points and fourteen rebounds. The whole game was Paul Pierce-esque.  And then the Celtics had a tough time disposing of the 76ers. It took seven games, but they got the job done and they were able to force an East Final against the team that knocked them out the year before: Miami Heat. The Truth, in a pivotal Game 5, sunk a deep three pointer in LeBron’s face to give the Celtics a four point lead with little time left. The Celtics had taken a 3-2 lead in the series, but then they froze up big time in Game 6. In Game 7, the Celtics were leading most of the way. They were on their way to the Finals for a third time in five years. But then, the Heat went on a run and took the lead for good on the underdog Celtics. It was tough to watch the Celtics come so close to another Finals appearance and watch it slip away. They were a huge underdog and gave Miami the fight of their lives. Paul Pierce’s clutch helped propel the Celtics almost to the Finals, but age had hit them. These guys just weren’t as athletic as the younger guys. Pierce doesn’t have the hops or speed of many guys in the league. And now more than ever he has relied on a beautiful read and react offensive game which has led him to his Hall-of-Fame career.

The 2013 season was a real let down. Ray Allen decided to become a traitor and leave in the off season. Rondo went down with an ACL injury and Pierce was left to carry the load. That load was just too much for a thirty-five year old player in his fifteenth season. Pierce put up some very gaudy numbers in 2013 though, having to do almost everything for a now young Celtic squad. Once the season ended, everything was in doubt. Pierce and KG were both almost traded at the deadline and it seemed like more trade rumors were swirling. Then, Doc and Danny seemed to be uncertain about each other, which led to the end of Doc’s tenure. Just days later, Pierce and KG were dealt to Brooklyn for mainly draft picks and some garbage players. That was it. The Paul Pierce era in Boston was officially over. Just like that. Fifteen seasons wearing the Celtic green, and now he’ll be wearing the Brooklyn black.

It was a sad day when I heard the news of Pierce’s departure. Yes, tears started to fill the eyes. But it really wasn’t a sad kind of tear. It was more of a retrospective thought in what I had just witnessed my entire life tear. My entire life, all I have known is Paul Pierce. He was the star of the Celtics the moment I started watching basketball. Even though the team was never a real contender, for some reason I loved them. Pierce to me, was just a likeable guy. He was our franchise player. He was the truth. Pierce will leave the Celtics holding a various number of records and a lot of gaudy numbers that will certainly make him a future Hall-of-Famer. He is 2nd in Celtics history in points scored, 7th in rebounding, 4th in assists, 1st in steals, 1st in free throws made and 1st in three-pointers made. To be in the top ten in all of those categories for the franchise with the most history is really saying something about Pierce. He also has one Finals Championship, a Finals MVP, and a ten time All-Star.  Also, just this past year, Pierce cracked the top twenty in career points in NBA history. All of these accolades have come while Pierce was leading the Boston Celtics.

Pierce may be one of the most overlooked players that will make it to the Hall-of-Fame. He was one of the few players though to play for a team for over fifteen seasons and put up the constant stats that he has done. Doc Rivers said it best when he called Pierce a professional scorer, because that is exactly what he is. Like I pointed out before, Pierce is certainly not the most gifted athlete. He probably runs a 5.2 forty yard dash. He always seems to struggle getting up to the rim. He certainly doesn’t jump out at you as a cut and defined athlete. But, Pierce gets the job done by being a smart player and a really gifted scorer. His go-to move is the isolation at the top of the key. From there, Pierce will decide which elbow to attack on and go at it. He’ll either drive hard to the cup and try to draw contact, give a head fake and pull up, or really do it up but giving a head fake and a very pronounced step-back fade away which is Pierce’s bread and butter clutch shot. You also can’t leave Pierce open from deep, because given time he is automatic. Pierce may be the Celtics all-time best scorer. Everyone in Celtics history, except Bird, ever had the offensive talent to take over games the way Pierce did in his prime. When hot, he was un-guardable. If Pierce was hot, he would be hitting almost any shot he took and he would be able to create offense for himself in any scenario. Pierce also can crash the glass and stack up rebounds as well. Pierce is the all-around facilitator that all teams need. He can play point guard when needed; he can be your post guy and also be your go-to guy and make all the plays you need. I think Pierce is the most underappreciated player in the game. The 2008 playoffs finally gave the world a chance to see the real Paul Pierce. The hard-nosed defender and clutch player. People claim Pierce isn’t great because he couldn’t get it done by himself and needed KG and Allen. That is crazy because Pierce has almost NO help in his early years. Larry Bird had Hall-of-Fame type guys in Dennis Johnson, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale. Bill Russell had Sam Jones and Bob Cousy. Before KG and Allen, Pierce had Antoine Walker…. surely not a Hall-of-Famer. Pierce did what he could on a bad team: lead them to four straight playoffs appearances, three playoff series wins and lead them to an East Final. Then, Pierce got the help he needed and won a Championship, led the team to two Finals, three conference finals and eleven playoff series wins. All of that success in only six years, I’d say that is very successful for such a short period of time especially with guys like Kobe and LeBron playing in their primes. Pierce may not be a ‘superstar’, but he certainly is a star and definitely a franchise player. Through the entire up and downs of his career, Pierce was rewarded with a Finals MVP and should have two if it weren’t for injuries and some bad luck.

People are reluctant to put Pierce in an all-time great category. I say fine. You have your opinion, I’ll have mine. To me, Paul Pierce was the best player I have ever seen play, granted I haven’t been around long. But, to me, he is the best player because I fell in love with him. His style of play, his swagger, his heart, and his masterful clutch game, how could you not fall in love with him? He was our leader for fifteen years. Through thick and thin, he was loyal to us and we were loyal to him. And maybe that is why he earns extra points as an all-time great to me; he was loyal to everyone in the Celtics organization. His career looks three times better because he was doing it on the same team. Yes, he will now go on to end his career with the Nets. But no one will remember Pierce as a Net; just like no one remembers Montana as a Chief, Favre as a Viking, or Jordan as a Wizard. Paul Pierce will always be a Celtic. He will always bleed green for the city that made him who he is.  Pierce will always be my all-time favorite player and that will never change. I witnessed my first basketball championship as a fan with him as my leader. Now that he is on the Nets I am still rooting for the Celtics and always will. But, I tip my cap to you Paul for all that you did for us Celtics fans; staying loyal until the end. But, if you do win a ring in Brooklyn Paul, I will clap for you, because you deserve it. You deserve more than one ring for all the shit you have gone through. The losing, the stabbing, the boos; all of that was no match for you Paul. You fought through all of the hardships; stayed loyal to a franchise that loved you and needed you. You came through when we need you most. You got repaid with a ring and a slot in history as a legend with the greatest franchise in the NBA. No matter what happens Paul Pierce is a Celtic. He is a Hall-of-Famer. He is a Celtic all-time great that will have his number up in the rafters in the coming years. His loyalty and his story will never be forgotten in Boston and it will always be the reason he is the ultimate Celtic.


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