The truth is that now, years later, Paul Pierce is better than we might have believed. The truth is that so much as the Celtics were bad, for as long as they were, Pierce's game suffered. The truth is that even those of us who watched Pierce regularly made the mistake of underestimating his talent, his skills, his desire.
And the truth now is that Pierce has awakened an entire nation, served notice that he belongs among the most elite group of basketball players in the world.
Here is a quick story for you: Last year, during the NBA Finals in Los Angeles, many reporters and credentialed onlookers were relegated to watching the game on a large-screen television in an impromptu workroom. The Celtics already had completed a stirring comeback in Game 4 and were on the verge of another in Game 5, and it was dawning on the basketball world that most of the experts had been wrong, that the Celtics were the superior team, that the best player in the Finals was not Kobe Bryant but rather Pierce, who entered the Finals on the undercard.
Here was the star of the Lakers, the otherworldly Kobe Bryant.
And there was Pierce, the other guy.
“I’ve got to be honest,” one NBA employee said in the midst of Pierce’s scintillating, 38-point performance in the Celtics’ eventual Game 5 loss. “I had no idea he was this good.”
No shame there.
After all, let’s be honest.
When you get right down to it, neither did we.
Just give him a chance
For Danny Ainge, all along, the idea was to build around Pierce, whom Ainge regarded as one of the greatest players in franchise history. The assessment sometimes seemed like something of a stretch. For all of the talents that Pierce demonstrated during the first nine years of his Celtics career, he turned the ball over too much, made relatively little commitment to defense, seemed to prefer the supporting role. Antoine Walker was seen as having more leadership skills.
The positives? Pierce could shoot, drive to the basket, and rebound. Above all, with the game on the line, he was positively fearless.
He made one hell of a vice president.
In retrospect, given what we know now, let that serve as indisputable evidence that losing taints reality as surely as winning enriches it. During the spring of 2007, when Ainge traded the No. 5 pick in the draft to the then-Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen, the move was met with skepticism and cynicism. Before the addition of Kevin Garnett, many thought the Celtics were needlessly spinning their wheels.
At the time, Ainge acknowledged that the Celtics had reached a crossroads with Pierce, that the club needed to build around him or trade him. Many Celtics followers believed that the latter was the more prudent course of action, but Ainge went so far as to say that Pierce “deserved” the chance to have a good team around him, again elevating his player to elite status.
“If we weren’t able to do [the Allen deal], we would maybe go a different direction at some point and move Paul and continue to build young,” Ainge said. “But there are teams like Chicago who are in the ninth year of that plan.”
Roughly two months later, when the Celtics acquired Garnett, a peculiar thing happened: The centerpiece of the Celtics once again became a supporting actor, right-hand man to the omnipresent Garnett. The question then was whether Pierce (along with Allen and Garnett) could subjugate his ego, accept a lesser role as scorer and greater role as player, whether he could become that most defining of all things, a winner.
Oddly, as much as the 2007-08 Celtics season was supposed to be about Pierce, it became more about Garnett, the proverbial new sheriff in town, whose assimilation into green was met with nightly chants of “M-V-P.” Garnett became the focal point. Garnett became the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Garnett became the face of the new Celtics franchise.
Quietly, along the way, Pierce enjoyed one of his most efficient seasons as a member of the Celtics, if not his most productive. His shooting percentages went up. His defense improved. His turnovers went down.
By the end of the regular season, the Celtics were a stellar 66-16.
A star is born
Then came the playoffs.
Of all the storylines of last year’s NBA postseason, none was more captivating than Pierce’s growth into a star of Jamesian (as in LeBron) proportion. At many points, he was downright Kobe-like. While matched against James for much of the time, Pierce scored 41 points in the Celtics’ breathtaking 97-92 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Pierce shot 13-of-23 from the field, 4-of-6 from 3-point distance, and 11-of-12 from the line with five assists, four rebounds, and two steals. He did it all while guarding James, who had to work a good deal harder for his 45 points.
At that moment, Pierce was everything at once: the familiar scorer, the far more efficient shooter and passer, the newly impassioned defender.
By the time the Celtics wrapped up their 17th championship and Pierce was named MVP of the Finals, the nationwide perception of Pierce had changed entirely. Garnett was starting to look like the supporting actor now. Pierce followed his 38-point performance in Game 5 with 10 assists in a decisive and lopsided Game 6, propelling the Celtics to a 131-92 victory that was more like an annihilation. Pierce spent much of the final few games guarding Bryant, whose stock dipped as Pierce’s rose.
Even the Celtics seemed to take note as ground shifted.
“No doubt,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I think Paul was viewed upon only as a scorer, and now I think people see him as a complete basketball player. He had eight assists the other night [in Game 5]. The game before that, he guarded Kobe and did a terrific job. I think he’s one of the best rebounders at small forward in our league, and he’s a lethal scorer. He did it all.”
But then, isn’t that what the great ones do?
A complete player
Today, Paul Pierce is a wonderful combination of the old and the new, the scorer who could carry the Celtics when necessary and the complete player who can win when he does not score. Already this season, Pierce has made a handful of last-second, game-winning shots to rescue the Celtics from themselves. The “M-V-P” chants at the Garden once aimed at Garnett are now directed at Pierce.
Beyond the city limits, Pierce’s image similarly has changed. Prior to last postseason, Pierce jerseys traditionally ranked among the top 15 sold. Pierce now ranks fifth behind Dwyane Wade, James, Bryant, and Garnett, the last of whom had the additional advantage of having changed teams (hence, a new jersey).
With that higher profile comes a new awareness of the power of banner No. 17. “[The championship] means everything,” Pierce said last summer in the wake of the Celtics’ Game 6 victory. “You know, I’m not living under the shadows of the other greats now. I’m able to make my own history with my time here and, like I said, this is something that I wanted to do. If I was going to be one of the best Celtics ever to play, I had to put up a banner. And we did that.”
Along the way, with regard to his place in basketball worlds past and present, he removed all doubt.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at email@example.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti