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Time for the star to shine

Pierce’s play is a real sore spot

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 16, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA - Paul Pierce’s offensive arsenal will never age or go out of style. When he is 47 in 2024, he will still be backing down athletic wunderkinds half his age for a step-back jumper on the paint-chipped rims of Rogers Park in Inglewood, Calif.

What separates Pierce from most of the NBA’s elite players is that his game is not based solely on athleticism. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Derrick Rose dominate the game primarily because of athleticism backed up by great skill. But how they look 10 years from now, when they are in their early or mid 30s, is a mystery because those raw physical skills will have decayed.

While Pierce’s physical prowess has slipped slightly over the past several years, he remains capable of breakout games because of his ability to create space with his size and a polished mid-range game that many of his contemporaries lack.

So as the Celtics enter Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center, that Pierce needs to return for Boston to enjoy success.

Bothered by a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, Pierce has averaged a lowly 10.5 points and converted just 5 of 20 field goal attempts in the series, defended vigorously by Andre Iguodala, whose body resembles a series of long bones padded by sharply defined muscles. Iguodala’s lankiness is giving Pierce problems, and the knee problem is not allowing Pierce to explode to the basket.

But his lack of production has also been a byproduct of inactivity. Twenty shots in 77 minutes is a stunningly low number for an All-Star scorer. By comparison, Brandon Bass has attempted 24 (in 48 minutes), Rajon Rondo 27, Ray Allen 24, and Avery Bradley 17.

Allen and Bradley have also been battling injuries, but that hasn’t curtailed their aggressiveness. While Pierce is shooting a low percentage, there is no question that he needs to take more shots. A non-aggressive Pierce is like a strong dose of Theraflu - it’s so potent that it robs you of your personality.

Kevin Garnett has been brilliant in leading the offense, but it is unfair to ask him to carry the Celtics to victory against a Philadelphia defense that has been more physical than the Eagles’.

The 76ers, like the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, have a better chance to beat Boston when Rondo, not Pierce, is firing up 17-foot jumpers. Pierce is still feared by the 76ers, but not when used as a decoy or when he appears content passing up shots.

This Pierce is eerily reminiscent of the one who lumbered around the court the first three weeks of the season out of shape and bothered by a sore right heel.

Rumors of his demise began to surface then. There was a perception that Pierce had lost a step, that the Celtics’ decision to sign him for an additional two years past this season was a foolish one.

Then he used late January and February to resurrect his image and make the All-Star team.

The knee injury unquestionably is an issue, but that should not stop him from attempting to get to the free throw line or imposing his will offensively. The results may be ghastly sometimes, but it is better than watching Pierce stand on the perimeter while Garnett gets gobbled up by triple-teams.

“I don’t think we have a big margin for error,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew that coming into this whole playoff run with the bodies we have. We’ve got guys going in and out of games. Paul clearly is not 100 percent.

“We’re not going to run away from anybody.’’

With the Celtics offensively challenged, and the secondary players providing little help, it may be time to lean on Pierce after his laidback first two games.

While his knee is bothersome, Pierce wasn’t exactly the model of good health during the Atlanta series, when he averaged 23 points and willed the Celtics to a win in Game 2 with 36 points. He has enough game left to give the Celtics a boost in what is expected to be a raucous environment.

If this is indeed the end of the road for the Big Three, they can at least battle the 76ers with a full arsenal, and Pierce’s old-man game is good enough to produce more points and reap more benefits for an offense that has suffered in the first two games.

It’s time for Pierce to become himself again, reassert his dominance on the series - or at least ignore the knee, those long arms of Iguodala and Father Time, and restore that “old man’’ game. He’ll never lose that knack.

“We just got to take it one game at a time,’’ he said after Game 2. “They’re gonna be tough in their home building. They really put a number on us in the regular season in their building, but it’s the playoffs. Gonna look at the tapes, see some things we can clean up and be a better team when we get to Philly.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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