Growing season for Celtics' Pierce
Kevin Garnett moved from Minnesota to Boston. Ray Allen moved from Seattle to Boston. Paul Pierce stayed put.
That is the geographical story of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, at least according to Garmin.
What gets neglected in that version, though, is how far Pierce has moved in so many other ways. Strategically, stylistically, emotionally, professionally and thus metaphorically, the Celtics' longtime anchor has traveled miles and miles to get to where he's at right now, without once contacting the cable company or forwarding his mail.
This is not to be confused with running in place, the treadmill existence that Pierce lived for his first nine years with the Celtics. While Garnett, Allen, James Posey, Eddie House, P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell, assistant coach Tom Thibodeau and a few others literally took planes, trains and automobiles to get here, relocating to New England for this memorable season, Pierce made his journeys on the court and inside his own skin.
That sort of travel can easily be missed -- as overlooked as the "b'' in subtle -- by those in close proximity to a person. To fans at the TD Banknorth Garden, to folks watching Pierce for so long in pubs and from their recliners, he might appear to be nearly the same player, the same guy, as always.
But watching Pierce from afar for much of his career until this season, mostly from the Western Conference for two games up close and a handful more on television, it seems clear that he has grown as a player and -- especially in this postseason and these Finals, which Boston won with Tuesday's 131-92 rout of the Lakers -- enhanced his reputation on the Celtics' honor roll.
Before: Pierce was a potent and creative scorer on mediocre or worse teams. He averaged 23.6 points across 652 regular-season games prior to 2007-08, and got himself to five All-Star Games. Defensively? Eh, not so much. He might have been the Truth, in terms of nicknames, but he hardly was the answer for Boston; the Celtics were 64 games under .500 in his first nine years (321-385), had only three winning seasons and reached the playoffs just four times, going 16-21. Those five years at the beginning when he and Antoine Walker either played buddy-ball or took turns hoisting the shots didn't do his national rep any good, either. That 'Toine beat Pierce to a Finals and an NBA championship -- as a role player with Miami in 2006 -- seemed amusing but no great injustice.
Now: No way, I repeat, no way should Walker have gotten a ring before Pierce. Not if there was any fairness in how basketballs bounce. While 'Toine occasionally reverts to his dribble-loving, three-point-o-phile ways -- when he's permitted to play, that is, something he didn't do over the final 35 games of the Timberwolves' mixed-up, muddled-up season -- Pierce has undergone an extreme makeover as a mature basketball player.
"I don't know if he wasn't mature before,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He was the guy that just had to do everything. ... That's tough. I was in Orlando with Tracy [McGrady] and that's very difficult when you basically have to do it all.''
When Rivers got to Boston in 2004-05, he made Pierce adjust to him rather than the other way around. That was tough, too.
"You ask an All-Star to change your game, it's probably not the smartest thing to do,'' Rivers said. "The credit goes to Paul. ... You're an All-Star and I'm telling you you have to change your game in some ways and he did that, as far as the ball movement and where he was getting his shots from.
"He's been frustrated at times over the last two years, not toward the coach, just toward the losses. ... I don't think Paul got enough due for re-upping with us when he clearly could have waited and been a free agent. He whispered it at times, but for the most part, he wanted to stay and be a Celtic and see this through.''
Now, finally seen in full spotlight at age 30, Pierce has capped his team's remarkable season with some remarkable moments all his own. He welcomed the help that Garnett, Allen and the others provided, sacrificing his scoring from 25.0 points in 2006-07 to 19.6 but still leading the Celtics in that category. More dramatically, he became an ardent practitioner of Garnett's and Thibodeau's defensive emphasis, helped to break in and learned to trust point guard Rajon Rondo, and improved the read and ball-handling skills to become unexpectedly adept in pick-and-rolls, particularly working with Garnett.
In the playoffs, Pierce boosted his production with each round, from 18.0 points against Atlanta at the start to 19.4 against Cleveland, 19.7 against Detroit and 21.8 against the Lakers in the Finals. There was his 22 points and eight rebounds in the Game 7 clincher over the Hawks and the 41 points in 44 minutes, to offset LeBron James' 45 in 47, that he scored two weeks later to boost Boston past the Cavaliers in another decisive game. Against the Pistons, Pierce again had his way when it counted most, in Game 6, missing just seven of the 25 shots he took from the field or the line and scoring 27 to put them down, too.
The Finals were a similar script, writ large, with Pierce being named Most Valuable Player of the series. There was the saga of Game 1, a championship run and maybe even a career that seemed to crumple with Pierce under the basket in the third quarter, a strained right knee that ultimately was more of a scare than a setback. His Celtics brothers toting him off the court, the wheelchair down the hall and Pierce's hippity-hop back through the tunnel moments later all are part of the lore now, but the three-pointers he nailed upon re-entry, two of them just 22 seconds apart, were what tilted that game to Boston.
The drama in Game 4 was entirely on the court, Pierce urging Rivers at halftime to shift him defensively to Kobe Bryant. The Celtics at the time were down 18 points, taking only a slice out of what had been the Lakers' 24-point lead. By the end of the third quarter, though, the deficit was down to two, with Pierce scoring 15 in that period to Bryant's seven. When it was over, when Boston had completed the biggest comeback in Finals history for a 3-1 series lead, the Celtics' swingman had 20 points and seven assists. Bryant, bothered just enough by Pierce's solid, crowding defense, was 6-of-19 with only two free throws in the second half.
In Game 5 on Sunday, Pierce again outplayed the player most frequently compared to Michael Jordan. His 38 points, his 47 minutes, 58 seconds on the floor, his 16-of-19 free-throw shooting when the rest of his team attempted only 12 should have been enough. But Bryant poked the ball away from him on a pick-and-roll in the final minute, so a championship would have to wait for his adopted town, not his hometown of L.A.
Pierce's status in the Celtics' pantheon is now secure. Already sixth in points scored and 10th in games played with that storied franchise, he has helped plant a championship flag for the post-Larry Bird generation -- a couple of generations, in terms of players' life spans, given the 22 years that have lapsed between titles there. As Finals MVP, he is the fifth Celtics player -- after John Havlicek (1974), Jo Jo White (1976), Cedric Maxwell (1981) and Bird (1984, '86) -- to earn that honor since it was begun in 1969; needless to say, plenty of Celtics would have had shots at it during the team's first 10 title runs.
Before this season and postseason, Pierce might have qualified as one of the Celtics' all-timers in Boston. Those last two words no longer are necessary.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.