Paul Pierce has never done easy. Not in playing for losing teams in six of his first nine NBA seasons. Not in surviving insults real (stabbing) and perceived (“wheelchair”). Not in the delayed, crooked way he’s gotten himself free for drives and jumpers while amassing the second-most points in Celtics history.
Pierce has never taken the easy route, which is why his performance vs. the Knicks in the first round of this year’s playoffs is fitting in a way. Led by Pierce the last few seasons, the Celtics have experienced success only matched in previous eras. Led by Pierce this season, the Celtics are quickly bringing their most recent run of success to a catastrophic close.
Just catching the ball wasn’t easy for Pierce Friday night, not with two and three Knicks players slapping it from his hands. Jason Kidd, the NBA’s only 40-year-old free safety, made it his mission to harass Pierce whenever possible. The strategy worked. Pierce was 6 of 15 from the field, 0 for 4 from three-point range in the 90-76 loss. He matched five assists with five turnovers. For the series, Pierce is now 20 for 49 (41 percent) from the floor with 18 assists and 16 turnovers. Pierce took a long time to address the media Friday night, spending almost an hour after the game talking behind closed doors to Kevin Garnett and the injured Rajon Rondo. Asked to characterize some specific reasons for his team’s struggles, Pierce offered some veteran cliches.
“We’re definitely frustrated,” said Pierce. “We feel like we got a lot of good looks tonight, they just didn’t fall. That’s the way the ball bounces for you.. It is what it is. Can’t do nothing about it until Sunday.”
Anyone who’s watched the first three games closely knows there’s nothing about the bounce of the ball that’s going to propel the Celtics to a better showing. Boston has been overmatched in three games, failing to reach 80 points in each. Pierce has been overwhelmed. You can see it in his body language after coughing up yet another entry pass. Early in the first quarter of Game 3, Knicks forward Iman Shumpert drove on Pierce and then pulled back out, sending Pierce sliding 10 feet across the floor. During the second half of Game 1, Pierce was so off his game that he sent a shot from the baseline sailing two feet past the rim, smacking an unsuspecting J.R. Smith in the face.
Pierce the player is rarely pretty, but he’s usually confident. The Knicks haven’t allowed him to be methodical or brash. They’ve taken away his swagger.
“It was tough,” said Pierce. “You try to make a run and then they make a big three. Then you miss wide-open shots or miss a layup and they make a tough basket. You get yourself in those situations and it gets tough. You look at each other, you look down. Some guys lose their confidence in what we’re trying to do.”
Pierce has been at the center of what the Celtics have been trying to do for a long time, but he’s not going to have that role for much longer. In an ideal world, he’d be the wily veteran vs. the Knicks, playing a supporting role to a blossoming Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and Jared Sullinger. Ideally he wouldn’t have to do so much. Knicks coach Mike Woodson has done a brilliant job double-teaming Pierce the second he touches the ball and forcing him to give it up. The Knicks are daring someone else to beat them, and the Celtics don’t have anyone who can.
Getting swept by the Knicks could add to Pierce’s already complex legacy. He’s the second-most prolific scorer in Celtics history to John Havlicek (Bob Ryan has been saying for five years that Pierce is the franchise’s best scorer ever), but Pierce continues to be underappreciated among Boston legends. For a long time he didn’t win. When he finally did win, he had help. He’s writing one of his final chapters with some of his worst basketball. He hopes to make a sour ending a little easier to swallow with a win Sunday.
“It’s definitely a difficult situation,” said Pierce. “We definitely have our backs against the wall, but we’ve got to continue to fight, figure out a way how to get out of this rut.
But you’ve got to stick with it and understand that winning’s not easy. It’s going to be difficult. The playoffs are hard to win in, and we’ve got to figure out a way to grind through.”