I was going to write a column about Pierce’s role in this series, but WEEI’s Paul Flannery beat me to it.
Paul Pierce has the most unenviable job in the playoffs.
He has to guard LeBron James, which is difficult enough. But if Pierce plays well defensively, then clearly James’ elbow was bothering him. If James goes off — as he did in Game 1 when he scored 35 points — then it’s on Pierce, even if it was a team breakdown.
He also has to play against James on the other end of the floor, and James is an imposing defense who was just named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.
There’s a lot riding on Pierce in this series, and through two games it’s tempting to say that he’s the one starter who has yet to get it going. Rajon Rondo has obviously been tremendous. Ray Allen scored 22 points in Game 2. Kevin Garnett has recorded back-to-back games of 18 points and 10 rebounds and has been a key to the Celtics offensive gameplan. Then there’s Kendrick Perkins, who has done an excellent job of holding down the fort against Shaquille O’Neal.
Pierce hasn’t been bad, but his numbers would suggest that he’s been off. He’s shooting just 33 percent and averaging 13.5 points. Additionally, he’s taken a large number of 3-point attempts (11 of his 27 attempts have been from behind the arc, and he’s made just three of them). That continues a playoff trend that started in the Miami series when Pierce took 38 percent of his shots from 3-point range, up from his season-average of 30 percent.
To me, Pierce has done a great job defensively but no longer seems to be able to get it done on the other end of the floor like the Celtics need him to. For most of the game, Pierce becoming less central to the offense is fine. It’s when the game gets close in the fourth quarter that Boston looks to Pierce to shoulder the load, but I’m not sure Pierce can still consistently do that (despite all but ending Miami’s season in Game Three of round one).
One of the C’s biggest problems this season has been the lack of a fourth-quarter identity. Rajon Rondo has become comfortable leading the way for the first three quarters, but he defers to the Big Three down the stretch. Pierce used to be the unquestioned go-to guy, but can he still deliver like he used to? I’m not confident that he can, though I’m still not positive he can’t. It’s clear that shots are tougher to come by for Pierce these days. He can’t get to the rim like he used to, and he gets less separation on his jumpers. He’s become less aggressive and I have doubts that he still has it in him to be the cruncthime assassin he once was.
If the Celtics are to fall short of an 18th banner, it might just be the lack of a closer that does them in. But if they somehow happen to raise that banner, it will probably be due to Pierce having a little more clutchness left in reserves.