With every game he spends blending into the periphery, every quarter he spends squandering opportunities and every play he spends shying away from attack mode, Paul Pierce brings the Boston Celtics one step closer to postseason elimination.
Finals MVP. Eight-time All-Star. Captain. Leading scorer. Crunch-time go-to guy. That’s what Pierce has been in the past, what he still was even last series. But, in these Finals, he has come a long way from living up to his big-game reputation. As it is, he stands perilously close to damaging that reputation and allowing a chance at a second championship to slip right through his suddenly ice-cold fingers.
15 points, Pierce had in Game 3, but the 15 points hardly told the story. About half of them were as the seconds dwindled down and the game was more or less already decided. And those 15, those ugly and meaningless 15, were downright heavenly compared to the 10 points (on 2-11 shooting) he had in Game 2. Pierce is rhythmless offensively, and while his Game 3 foul trouble did nothing to help that (“He’d play five minutes, have to go back down, four minutes, have to sit,” said Doc Rivers. “I mean, he wasn’t allowed to play. They didn’t allow him to play tonight.”), it alone cannot be blamed for his failures. So what can?
Ron Artest? ”I don’t really see anything he’s doing special that any other teams haven’t done throughout the course of the playoffs,” Pierce said, defiantly. “That’s it.”
Maybe Artest isn’t doing anything strategically different from the other Pierce defenders, but — and it’s about as obvious as the bulging vein in Tracy McGrady’s shoulder — Artest is a different animal than Vince Carter. They could be applying the exact same strategy but it would still be a wee bit tougher to get buckets against Artest. He’s stronger, more relentless and — perhaps most importantly — relishes the challenge of stopping an opponent’s top option. Phil Jackson sics him on other teams’ best players and Artest does his job (just ask Kevin Durant, he of the 35.0% shooting in round one).
Artest clearly believes it’s his own doing that Pierce has been locked up. “Paul said it wasn’t me. Paul said I’m not doing anything, so I guess I better play better defensively (against him),” Artest said, with sarcasm oozing out of his voice. “I have to go out there and make my defense affect somebody.”
Artest continued, “I know how to change a game defensively. I’ve dominated games defensively, and sometimes people don’t see it. It’s like that Chinese death blow hit. You don’t feel until it’s in you, and five seconds later, you kind of die. I forget the name of it, but it’s a death blow.”
“I think Ron affects everyone’s offense. He’s the best perimeter defender in the league,” said Luke Walton, who apparently forgot to consider Lebron James in the equation. “I have to play him in practice every day, and it’s a pain in the ass. His strength, his hands, he makes it tough to get into any kind of a rhythm. I don’t think Pierce is frustrated, but he’s not putting up the numbers he has in the past, and I credit Ron with that.”
I think it’s clear Artest has something to do with Pierce’s struggles, but there’s one nagging thought to disprove the notion that Artest should get all the credit: Walton bottled Pierce up, too. Artest got into foul trouble during Game 3 and Walton had Pierce in shackles. Even if Artest was such a dominant defender and taking Pierce out of his game, shouldn’t the patchy-facial-haired wonder be able to score on Walton? I mean, Luke Walton?
“With me, I thought I missed shots in the first half with some good looks,” Pierce told the Boston Globe. “I’ll take those looks all night long, the ones I got. ”
“I thought Paul is getting good shots,” Doc Rivers told reporters Wednesday. “He’s not making some of them. Maybe Ron has something to do with that, but I don’t think he is. If we get Paul in rhythm and get him on his spots, I feel very confident that Paul will have big games for the rest of the series.”
He’d better. Pierce’s big-game reputation, not to mention the NBA Finals, is on the line.