Farewell to Paul Pierce, Cold-Blooded Lunatic
On Sunday, April 30, 2017, the Utah Jazz eliminated the LA Clippers from the first round of the NBA playoffs. For people besides Clippers fans, this was probably unsurprising — with Blake Griffin out, the Clippers weren’t expected to go far. Far more important was the fact that with the elimination of the Clippers, Paul Pierce will no longer be playing basketball in the NBA.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Paul Pierce made me a basketball fan. Throughout my early years as a kid Pierce was the only bright spot in a long line of mediocre to bad Celtics teams — they first piqued my interest in 2002 when the team made the Eastern Conference finals, only to fall apart and immediately fall back into dismal mediocrity, peaking (?) with the dismal 2007 season, where they only won 24 games.
The 2008 season brought multiple changes. The Celtics added All-Stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, and that, along with the addition of draftees Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, provided the core that would propel the Celtics to prominence over the next five years — Five playoff appearances, two Finals appearances, and one amazing NBA Finals Championship in their first year together, 2008.
As great as Garnett, Allen, Perkins and Rondo were, for me Paul Pierce was the real core of that team —everyone else had just gotten there, but he was the star who had been through the hard times and stuck with the team. It seemed only right that he lead the team right to the promised land. He was the emotional core of the team, and his scoring, defense and leadership were key to bringing the Celtics their first championship since Larry Bird.
Paul Pierce’s accolades are obvious — NBA Champion, NBA Finals MVP, 10x NBA All-Star, holder of numerous Celtics franchise records. But I want to go a little into the smaller things that made Paul Pierce an amazing player to root for — his ability to come up big in big moments, his rivalry with LeBron James and his fallibility.
So come along with me, as I dive into maybe my favorite NBA player ever.
The Clutch Gene
Statisticians, coaches, players, analysts and fans have argued for years over whether there is such a thing as a “clutch” player. These debates will probably never be resolved, and I honestly hope they never are, just for the joys of the hot takes these debates unleash. But what is undeniably true is that whatever it is that defines “clutch,” Paul Pierce most definitely has it.
For years, it was beautiful to watch Paul Pierce in the 4th quarter. He would methodically take the ball to the top of the key, ideally the top right side, make a couple of moves, and then unleash a step back jumper. I knew it was coming, his teammates knew it was coming, his defender knew it was coming. It never mattered. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen him ruin defenders’ lives, so please just enjoy this montage:
In fact, Pierce’s clutch gene is so strong that it doesn’t matter what team he plays on. Witness his Game 7 block to send Brooklyn to the second round:
Maybe my favorite comes from the 2015 playoffs. Paul Pierce was playing his first (and only) season with the Washington Wizards. The young Wizards had overachieved that season behind All-World point guard John Wall and rising star Bradley Beal, sweeping the Toronto Raptors. Pierce, while he had been a valuable contributor, was already slowing down (party because he was 37!), averaging career lows in points, assists and rebounds.
Washington was facing off against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, the series tied 1–1. Pierce was defended closely by Dennis Schroeder, a good defender, with Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver, both also very good defenders, watching him closely. This seemed like potentially a good time for the 37 year old to find Wall or Beal for a better shot.
Did Paul Pierce give a single shit? No he did not.
Afterwards, when asked if he called bank, Pierce replied:
“I called GAME.”
Who the hell does that? Who says that? More to the point, who could get away with saying that? Only a guy who has done that more times than he can count, who has no idea what it’s like to feel pressure, and who would drain a stepback 2 in the devil’s face if a game for the world’s soul was on the line.
After all, it’s only arrogance if you can’t back it up.
The Truth and The King
One of the most intriguing pieces of Pierce’s career is his long rivalry with LeBron. Entertainingly, this isn’t really a rivalry that was talked up much by either player, or the media. And LeBron is, obviously, a much better player than Pierce ever was.
Instead, this was a truly organic rivalry. LeBron, as Brian Windhorst and Amos Barshad chronicled, has and continues to be cast as a rival to almost everyone. At the beginning of his career, his supposed foils were Carmelo and Kobe, then it shifted to Kevin Durant, now it’s the Warriors Hydra (some combination of Steph Curry/Draymond Green/Andre Iguodala/Kevin Durant), as well as Kawhi Leonard. However, as entertaining as some of these matchups have been, none of them have occurred frequently enough, led to enough one-on-one matchups, or generated a sufficient volume of bad blood to be really, truly memorable (we’ll see if the next Draymond Green nutshot gets it to that level).
There was, however, always one player who ran into LeBron. This player brought out the best and the worst of the King. It was Pierce, a player inferior to everyone else on the above list, and definitely worse than LeBron. Pierce and LeBron played 30 playoff games against each other across five playoff series (lifetime record: LeBron 3, Paul 2), spending most of each series guarding each other. Those series produced some of the best highlights of Pierce’s careers, as well as some of the best and worst moments of LeBron’s early career.
Now, to be clear, I’m not trying to cast Paul Pierce as some sort of scrappy underdog — the man brought some serious firepower to the plate. But Pierce gave up two inches, 15 pounds and, um, a lot of basketball skills to LeBron.
Somehow, though, Pierce always managed to hold his own against LeBron, going one-on-one with the King over and over again, and coming out ahead many more times than he should have.
All of these, too, have to be put in the context of LeBron not having a ring. It’s easy to forget, now that LeBron has three rings, including one for Cleveland, but for the first eleven years of his career LeBron was consistently dogged by the challenge that he “couldn’t win.” Put him in the corner against the much-less pedigreed but “clutch” Pierce, and it made winning the matchup that much more important to LeBron — which only increased the pressure when he lost.
In the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the eventual champion Celtics ran into LeBron, who had just taken his team to the finals the year before. Pierce and LeBron went shot for shot, including an insane Game 7 in which LeBron scored 45, but Pierce scored 41 and got the win.
In the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Pierce and the Celtics shocked the top-seeded Cavaliers, knocking them off in six games, including this particularly brutal sequence when Celtics fans chanted “New York Knicks” at the entering-free-agency LeBron as he attempted a meaningless free throw at the end of Game 6.
This loss prompted LeBron to leave Cleveland, effectively murdering professional basketball in the city (until LeBron brought it back to life four years later, but that’s another story).
In 2011, LeBron and the Heat steamrollered the Celtics in five games. The first thing out of LeBron’s mouth? “First of all, I want to give a lot of thanks to the Boston Celtics, Coach Rivers, that coaching staff, them players, they make you fight for everything…you can never take your foot off the gas against that team.”
LeBron didn’t name check Paul Pierce, but he didn’t have to. There might be no bigger compliment to Paul Pierce than the fact that his 2010 team is the last team to ever beat LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
LeBron has always been the best player on the planet and the galaxy. If the fate of the universe ever depends on a basketball game between the humans and aliens, our unanimous choice should be LeBron. But if you were looking for a player who would size up a seven-foot tall alien with three-foot tentacles, psychic powers and the ability to fly, nod to himself, grin and say “I got this,” Pierce would probably be the best bet.
A Hero you could Root For
Part of the appeal for me of Paul Pierce, was that he was human, and fallible — at least as much as a 10x NBA All-Star could be. Unlike peers such as Kobe, who defined himself by his competitive drive, or LeBron, who has the most carefully managed image in all of sports, Pierce never made that much of an effort to clean up his image. Pierce wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes, sometimes a lot of them. He could fail, and sometimes he would.
After the dismal 2007 season, Pierce burned a lot of goodwill in Boston by publicly demanding that Boston get him help, or else he would demand a trade. Nobody was surprised.
He was a key part of the embarrassing 2002 FIBA World Championship team that finished 6th behind not just relatively competent basketball nations Argentina and Spain, but also Germany (huh),Yugoslavia (wha?) and New Zealand (dies), because of course he was.
He was fined $25,000 by the NBA for making a gang hand sign at the Atlanta Hawks during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, because of course he did.
Paul Pierce and the Big 3, as fun as they were, also never really quite hit their transcendent potential. After winning one championship, they only went back to the Finals one more time, where they lost to the Lakers. Along the way there were numerous stumbles, including early exits to the Magic and Knicks as the core aged and struggled with injuries. Pierce was good, and the Big 3 was good, but they weren’t unbeatable. They were very much human and flawed.
Pierce wasn’t a rapacious competitor like Kobe, and he wasn’t a carefully image-manicured, hyper-polished destroyer of worlds like LeBron. He was a guy who happened to be incredibly good at basketball, who also occasionally made some stupid decisions, and who failed rather frequently. For me, at least, that made him a much more fun and relatable player to watch.
If there’s one clip that sums up my feelings about Paul Pierce — his clutch gene, his rivalry with LeBron, and his fallibility — it’s this one.
Let’s set the stage — it’s the 2012 playoffs, and LeBron is still ringless, having lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals the previous year. The Miami Heat are the consensus best team in the East, now that Derrick Rose’s ACL has taken the Bulls out of contention. With LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, the Heat have a trio of in-their-prime All-Stars capable of overpowering any opponent on the floor.
The Celtics, meanwhile, managed to slip past the Hawks and the 76ers but the team was clearly older, and had a lost a step. Garnett, Pierce and Allen were all shells of their former selves — the Celtics were severe underdogs.
After a back and forth series, the Celtics traveled to Miami for Game 5. In front of a riotous Miami crowd, the Celtics had the ball with one minute left, clinging to a one point lead.
Then Paul Pierce did this:
The clutch gene, here is obvious. Even more insane is that before that shot Pierce had shot an appalling 5–18, with only 16 points. He had NOT been playing well — and his first instinct was still to pull the trigger. Ridiculously, it worked out for him.
His rivalry with LeBron is also obvious. LeBron defends him well, pestering him and playing the shot perfectly. Even in super-slo-motion, you can see LeBron’s absurd explosiveness as he takes off to try and block Pierce’s shot, contrasted with Pierce’s still-impressive but more human athleticism. And yet, somehow, none of it matters. The shot splashes net. LeBron is forced to watch as Pierce ruins his life, in his own house, in the biggest moment.
And Pierce’s fallibility? Well, after he hit that shot, and won that game for the Celtics, the Celtics just had to win one more game out of two to send the still-ringless LeBron and Heat back into the wilderness. Instead, LeBron curb stomped the Celtics, unleashing a horrifying 45 points on the Celtics in Game 6, and pouring in another 31 points in Game 7 to send the Celtics home, while Pierce was only able to muster 9 points in Game 6 and 19 points in Game 7. LeBron won his first ring in the next series, and one season later, Pierce and Garnett were traded to Brooklyn, breaking up the Big Three and ending Pierce’s Celtics career.
But for me, the part that I love? It’s Paul Pierce’s grin as he runs back towards the bench. It’s him mouthing “I’m cold-blooded,” as he ruins the night of everyone in the building, full of insane self-belief and somehow, living up to that absurd level of self-hype.
So here’s to you, my flawed, talented, mercurial cold-blooded superstar. May we all be as cold-blooded as you.