Something fun for Celtics fans to ponder while you watch the NBA Finals over the next couple of weeks: Does Thunder guard James Harden remind you of Paul Pierce?
The question stems from a rather interesting Doc Rivers media session in January, when the Thunder were in Boston to face the Celtics. Rivers absolutely gushed over Harden, and his comparison to the Celtics captain, who will undoubtedly have his jersey retired in the rafters of TD Garden, was high praise.
“He’s Paul Pierce, version two, except that he’s a better passer,” Rivers said of Harden. “He plays at a great NBA speed — he came into the league playing at that speed. I don’t think a coach has ever said he’s going too fast. He has a great tempo about him, an unbelievable feel.”
The “he’s Pierce but a better passer” part caught this reporter by surprise, but the pace comparison is absolutely true. Pierce plays the game at his pace, no matter the speed opponent. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, whoever: Pierce is going to have him back on his heels and off-balance after a series of herky-jerky, hesitation moves that appear too slow to the naked eye. You wonder how Pierce gets by anyone, never mind the league’s best, but then you watch him for years and you get it, how good he is at playing at his pace.
Harden has a similar style to Pierce. The game isn’t always pretty, but boy is it effective. (Harden’s five points in Game 1 were an aberration to his playoff averages of 16.8 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists). Harden’s strength is his efficiency. His true shooting percentage (an advanced metric that takes into account twos, threes, and free throws) of .660 was second in the NBA this season. His offensive efficiency rating was third. Pierce’s efficiency dipped somewhat this season, but he was fourth and eighth in the league in true shooting percentage respectively in the two previous seasons.
Where Harden is most known is as an elite defensive player. Pierce has flown under the radar on that side of the ball his entire career. You’ll recall that Pierce’s best stretch of defense came during Boston’s 2008 championship run, when he was effective on both James and Kobe Bryant. Watch Harden on defense this week, watch how he guards Wade and sometimes James, and compare him to Pierce. Watch Harden on offense and see if his game is comparable to Pierce’s. Is he a better passer? Does it really matter? Debates like this are what make basketball fun.