Everyone was so excited by Nate Robinson’s improbable and glorious performance that we didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the truth. The Truth, I mean. Paul Pierce wasn’t only the Celtics’ best player in Game 6, he was their best player all series.
A couple weeks ago, some of us — including my dumb ass — wondered if Pierce still had it. I’m not going to deny it — I, too, wondered how much he had left in the tank. He’d been banged up for a good portion of the season and looked run-down against the Cavs. Sure, he was playing Lebron James… but that hadn’t stopped Pierce in 2008, had it? I foolishly thought Pierce’s best days were behind him.
And maybe they still are. Maybe he’ll never again drop 41 points in a Game 7 duel or 38, 8 and 6 in an NBA Finals Game 5. Maybe Pierce won’t outplay Kobe Bryant in another Finals series or notch another Finals MVP trophy in his belt. Pierce is probably a little diminished compared to the player he once was. Even so, he is still one hell of a player.
Pierce’s emergence in the Orlando series revealed the 2010 Celtics’ biggest strength: Depending upon matchups, they have a number of players who can kill an opponent. In the first two series’s, it was Rondo who led the way. The opponents’ defense dictated that he did. In round two Rondo received some serious help from KG, who devoured Antawn Jamison for dinner. Again, the matchups dictated the Celtics’ game-plan. Jamison couldn’t guard Garnett if his life depended on it, so the C’s went to a steady diet of KG.
In round three, it was Pierce’s turn. Vince Carter couldn’t defend Pierce because, well, he’s Vince Carter, and Matt Barnes tried valiantly to guard Pierce but was simply too small. With the exception of only one play the entire series, Pierce was able to get whatever shot he wanted whenever he wanted it. (Really, I think the last play of regulation in Game 4 was the one time Pierce didn’t get the shot he wanted against Orland’s defense. He missed some shots, sure, but excepting that one play Pierce was always in control, always able to find the shot he desired. The Magic defenders could not, for the life of them, get Pierce out of his comfort zone.) And so it was that Pierce destroyed the Magic, surgically. Pierce didn’t hog the ball, never kept it in his hands for too long. He simply bided his time, sought out his scoring zones, and attacked whenever he had an opportunity.
Garnett wasn’t nearly as effective against Orlando as he was against Cleveland, but it didn’t matter. Rondo wasn’t nearly as dominant, but it didn’t affect the outcome. Those things didn’t matter because Pierce picked up the slack. He had a mismatch, all series long, and he exploited it. That’s simply what these Celtics are talented enough, and smart enough, to do. They seek out their best chance to score, and they capitalize.
No Celtic cares who scores the points, nobody cares who gets the credit: They all just want to win. And winning is just what they’ve been doing, ever since the regular season turned into the playoffs.
Paul Pierce may not be the Celtics’ best player anymore, but he’s still a big reason why that winning hasn’t yet stopped.