"The Truth" may be a reach, but he sure lived up to his Captain's title yesterday.
Paul Pierce brought his certified 'A' game to a deciding seventh game against the Cavaliers. He stood tall in the Cousy-Russell-Havlicek-Bird sense, picking the most propitious moment to play his best game of the 2008 playoffs.
"He just willed his team to victory," said Cleveland's LeBron James. "I know that was the breakout game he was waiting for."
Pierce could have said the same thing about LeBron, the ridiculously precocious 23-year old who scored 45 points. With Pierce scoring 41, there were serious overtones of a much-discussed Game 7 against Atlanta 20 years ago featuring two Hall of Famers fully recognizable by first names only. But this personal shootout will stand on its own merits, given that they combined for a fairly amazin' 45 percent of the points in a 97-92 Celtics triumph that sends them into the Eastern Conference finals against those hardy perennials, the Detroit Pistons.
Pierce was not having a great series. He was held to 4 points in Game 1, and he averaged a mere 14 points a game in the three fruitless trips to Cleveland. The only reason you didn't hear all that much about this business was that everyone was focusing on Ray Allen's astonishing (ongoing) futility.
But Pierce took charge immediately yesterday, opening the day's scoring with a very difficult foul line jumper that, by any reasonable measure, was a force. But it went in, and so did the next one, and the next one (a second chance three). He had 9 of the first 14 Boston points as the Celtics moved to a 16-4 lead, a cushion they would exploit for the rest of the peculiar game in which the Cavaliers never led, were never even tied past 4-4, and yet were never out of.
This was an aggressive, but not reckless, Paul Pierce. You know how he goes into those wild spin-o-ramas, crashing into people in the vain hope of getting to the line? Nope, there was none of that yesterday. His six trips to the line (11 for 12) were the result of intelligent, confident, I'm-a-star-and-I-know-what-I'm-doing excursions to the hoop. And his shot selection? Just outstanding.
He had 26 by halftime, and that represented more than half of the Boston points as the Celtics moved to a 50-40 lead by intermission. He had 35 after three quarters, and, after sinking two professional jumpers in the first six minutes of the fourth, he concluded his afternoon and early evening's work with a pair of free throws with 7.9 seconds left (the first an up-and-in job he said must have been guided in by the "Ghost of Red") that closed the deal.
"Tonight was very simple," quipped Kevin Garnett. "Get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way. That's exactly what it was. No need for you all to ask me no questions. That was the game plan; this is what we did."
Garnett was only being mildly facetious. While there was never any intention for Pierce to score 42 percent of the team's points, it was in the head of Pierce and his coach that he be a bit more assertive than he was in most of this tedious series. After watching the tape of Game 6, Pierce realized he'd been hesitant coming off picks. There was no such hesitation in this game, and no one was more aware of this than Cleveland mentor Mike Brown.
"I thought in the first half he was splitting our 'show,' " he explained, referring to the double-teaming help of a big man coming to the aid of LeBron, who guarded Pierce the entire game. "And then when we went to a blitzing defense, he was getting outside of the blitz when we double-teamed the basketball. You've got to give him credit. He hit some tough shots right off the elbow area. One shot he hit, LeBron was on his side and Z (the 7-foot-3-inch Zydrunas Ilgauskas) stepped up to contest, and he hit a tough shot."
"I took a number of 15-footers I know I can make right there off the dribble," Pierce explained. "So I thought I was well within the flow of the offense. The ball was just coming to me. I felt great, and I was just letting it ride."
Every once in a while Pierce reminds us that he is the greatest pure scoring machine in Celtics history. Many old-timers bristle when you say that, citing John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, or whomever. But it just happens to be the truth.
He can get his own shot, which is a major plus. He is an extremely proficient, highly ambidextrous, driver. He takes a lot of free throws. He is a constant 3-point threat. And he is the best fast break finisher the team has ever had. No argument.
"Before I came here I couldn't understand how he scored so well," acknowledged coach Doc Rivers. "He didn't look that quick. But he's very strong, and he has great fundamental footwork. He's never in a hurry, and he knows exactly what he's trying to do. And he can shoot."
We might quibble with the "never in a hurry part," but not with anything else. The man is simply a magnificent scorer.
"Paul Pierce is one of my favorite players," said James. "I always say, second to Kobe Bryant, he has some of the best footwork I've ever seen in a player. I love going against the best, and Paul Pierce is one of those guys."
His contributions were hardly limited to points. He had five assists and he provided the Celtics with a vital possession when he sniffed out man mountain Ilgauskas's intentions on a jump ball with James Posey, knocking Big Z's intended tip toward a teammate away, diving on the floor, and getting a necessary timeout with 58 seconds to play and the Celtics leading, 91-88.
"That was a big possession at the time," Pierce noted. "In the playoffs, you've got to treat every possession as if it's your last."
In a better world, Paul Pierce would be able to put his feet up and rest a spell. This Cleveland series was hard work.
"This is one of the tougher, if not the toughest, guys I guard," he said in reference to LeBron. "I'm glad this series is over. He wears you out. Your body is sore. It's massages. Hot tubs."
It doesn't help if you are knocked into a TV camera, as he was by Sasha Pavlovic near the end of the half yesterday
But the problem with going seven is that there is no rest. Detroit is here tomorrow night. Perhaps this time, a simple 20 or 25 will get the job done. But if any Celtic can get 40, it's Captain Paul Pierce.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.