One man’s loss can be another man’s gain. The trouble — the positive? — is that the same loss can also affect a team.
For Paul Pierce and the Celtics, Pierce’s damn shoulder injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. He was rolling. Everything was coming together, not just for him but for the team. The C’s were playing well, and Pierce was leading the way. Then a shoulder stinger happened against the Spurs, and it looked pretty bad. As Pierce sat on the ground, writhing, I saw the season flash before my eyes. Then he was up a minute later, after a lot of wincing, and still in the game. I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing the injury was nothing. But there was another stinger, in practice yesterday, and now Pierce will likely miss at least one game. Stingers don’t normally force a long recovery, but you have to wonder whether Pierce’s rhythm — and, in turn, the Celtics’ — will be affected by his potential layoff.
That rhythm had been there. Again. Finally. After a long absence. For both Pierce, and the team.
Pierce could finally get to the rim again, whenever he damn pleased. His penetrating ability had abandoned him long ago, but Pierce — for a stretch of games during the past few weeks — was back to his old, slithery ways of getting to the bucket. He was getting to the line again, scoring easy buckets down low, and working that spin move of his, the one manufactured from equal parts strength, tenacity, and footwork. He had scored more than 20 points in five out of six games after having reached that mark only two times in his previous 17 contests. There was a swag to his game, an aggression that hadn’t been there in a long time, and the C’s were feeding off a large dosage of Truth.
The funk was back. Actually, Pierce’s game is always funky. It’s not pretty, like Ray Allen’s. It doesn’t seem natural, like Kevin Durant’s. Scoring doesn’t seem to come easy to him, like Carmelo Anthony. He won’t blow you away with his athleticism, like Lebron.
He unleashes long forays to the hoop, pinballing off one player, spinning off another, and finally reaching the basket for a layup. It works, but it’s tough to tell whether it’s aesthetically pleasing or worse to watch than Kazaam. More than any other elite scorer in the league, perhaps, Pierce seems to will himself to score. Not that other top scorers don’t have a strong will to put the ball in the bucket; they certainly do. Scoring just seems to come a little more difficultly to Pierce. He has to work a little more than his peers, to accomplish the same results.
Even his jumpshot seems manufactured. There is nothing effortless about the way Pierce shoots. The ball comes off his fingertips and Pierce stands there, watching it head toward the rim but also trying to urge it into the basket. He’s no innocent bystander as his shots fly through the air. Instead, he’s pushing his hips into the shot a little, as if he’s trying to steer that round pill into its home.
Funny, Pierce’s outside jumper was the only thing not working for him as he continued his hot streak. It had been his greatest asset in the early part of the season, yet his only flaw as the 20-point games kept flowing. But everything else was working, and you could imagine what was going to happen once Pierce got hot from downtown: Fireworks. Buckets. More wins.
Sparked by Pierce’s resurgence, the Celtics were making a habit of winning. In Houston, in Dallas. Wins, sometimes even blowouts. The Spurs game, even before Pierce was injured, was a hiccup to be certain. But confidence was starting to swell in Boston, as the C’s began to take the shape of a team with hopes of winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Now, Pierce is likely out. For a game or two, says Doc Rivers. But will he hop right back into his hot streak when he returns? Can the Celtics handle the Oklahoma City Thunder if Pierce has to watch in a suit? What about the Rockets? Will he even miss a game? Will he miss two? Do the Celtics lose them both if he misses two? Or just one? None? What if they do lose? Will their confidence be shaken?
The Celtics had finally started to answer questions that had lingered all season. But now Pierce goes down twice in a span of three days, and the questions flood back in. Pierce was peaking at the right time, and now he’s injured, and I might be a worry wart but I wonder whether it will screw everything up. Pierce’s momentum, his roll, his swag. Can he keep it up if he misses games? Will his shoulder even be okay?
As questions arise regarding his Celtics and teammate Paul Pierce, Marquis Daniels looms in the background. Way in the background. Behind Tony Allen, on the bench, normally with his warmup suit on. After weeks of consistent inconsistency, marked by several disappearing acts, Daniels has supplanted Allen in Doc Rivers’ doghouse. His reward? A few splinters, and a growing lack of confidence evident every time he steps on the floor.
Daniels probably watches the Pierce injury situation with keen interest. As the odd man out right now, Daniels stands the most to gain if Pierce misses a few games. When Pierce went down in practice yesterday, it was Daniels who stepped in with the first team. It is Daniels who will likely start tonight if Pierce can’t go, and Daniels who will probably play the brunt of Pierce’s minutes. It’s a chance for Daniels to regain Rivers’ trust, to establish himself as a player the Celtics will need come playoff time.
Really, it isn’t hard to imagine ‘Quis stepping up in Pierce’s absence, dusting off the cobwebs and playing a big role. He’s been a positive force off the bench at times this season, just hasn’t done it lately. He has the potential to make a big difference, just hasn’t done it lately. He knows how to play basketball, but just hasn’t done it lately. All he needs, it seems, is a little confidence. In basketball, self-belief is vital. If you think you’re going to make a shot, that basket looks big enough to fit a beach ball in. But if you think you’re going to miss, you’re probably going to do just that.
Recently, Daniels has been playing like he thinks he’s going to miss. Tentative, going to the basket. Hesitant, making his moves. Cautious, taking shots. He needs to let loose, to play with a little confidence, but he definitely isn’t going to gain that on the bench. With every game that passes, Daniels seems to lose a little more swagger.
But now Paul Pierce might be out, and Daniels is the one Celtic with the most to gain. With some extended playing time, maybe Daniels will snap back to being the player he’s been his whole career. If he does, the Celtics could gain something from Pierce’s injury. An active and confident Marquis Daniels off the bench would be a nice weapon for Doc to hold come the postseason.
Of course, Pierce could start tonight and look great, rendering this entire column moot. Or Daniels could start, play thirty minutes, and not do a single thing. Or the injury might not affect Pierce when he returns. Or it could. I really don’t know much about the effects this shoulder stinger will have.
All I do know is, if Pierce misses a game or more, it will be both an opportunity and a threat.