I reminded myself of Paul Pierce while playing basketball, and that was actually a bad thing. Let me explain.
I played summer league basketball this summer, and I wasn’t what I used to be. Once a college basketball player (and not a decade or two ago either, but only two years ago), my waist now shows ample evidence of my unconditional love for pizza and a few too many hours on the couch. On the court, it showed. Because I was playing against high schoolers and old men who I would have devoured in my prime, my mind still felt like I was the best player on the court. My body just couldn’t carry out my head’s commands.
I would start a move and KNOW I was going to get to the hoop for an easy layup. All of a sudden – BAM! – my path was cut off by a defender I would have roasted in my heyday. My mind was telling me I could still get to the hoop, but physically I just couldn’t do it. By the end of the summer, my body realized my mind was a filthy liar and I adjusted accordingly. Where I once would have fielded layup lines against some of my defenders, I instead settled for jumpers. I put together some good performances, but I had no choice but to adjust my game. I couldn’t force my imprint on the game anymore. Instead, the game forced its imprint on me.
And that’s where Paul Pierce is now.
No longer can he force his will on a game. He can’t get to the hoop whenever he wants to, at least not against the league’s best defenders. Not during crunch time, either. Just look at a comparison of the past two years. The Pierce we experienced last season, at least during crunch time, wasn’t even close to the one we saw the year before.
Back during the ’08-’09 season, Pierce was the ninth-best NBA scorer in crunch time, averaging 39.1 points per 48 minutes during the final five minutes of five-point (or less) games. The players ahead of him were a who’s-who of NBA stars: Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Dirk Nowitzki, and Nate Robinson (wait, Nate Robinson?). That year Pierce was assisted on only 26% of his crunch-time shots, and shot 45% from the field. He didn’t need help producing make-able shots; Pierce could do it all on his own.
Fast forward to this past year and Paul Pierce, Crunch-time Assassin was nowhere to be found. His crunch-time scoring average plummeted to 22.8 points, and the players ahead of him were no longer superheroes. Players that scored at a higher rate than Pierce during crunch-time included the likes of Jonny Flynn, Jarrett Jack, Martell Webster, Andrea Bargnani and Randy Foye. For The Truth, it’s embarrassing to trail that quintet in anything basketball-related. But for those players to beat Pierce in crunch-time points, where Pierce has made a name for himself as a money player? Something was clearly wrong. When the pressure was on and defenses were more focused than ever on keeping the Celtics from scoring, Pierce was unable to create his own shots with any success. He needed assists on 50% of his crunch-time shots (almost double the rate from the year before), and his crunch-time field goal percentage fell to 41%. Opponents could handle The Truth, and the Celtics lacked a go-to guy.
Aging, and the nagging injuries that come with it, have forced Pierce to adjust his game. He can still get anything he wants against the right matchup (read: Matt Barnes, Orlando series), but no longer possesses the ability to exploit every player in the league. Lacking the explosiveness of his youth, Pierce can’t dominate on a nightly basis. He can’t create shots whenever he pleases. That newfound inability to generate open shots on a whim especially limits his late-game and important-game heroics. The proof is in the stats.
We all remember the Game That Must Not Be Named, when the Celtics collapsed in the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold a lead. What some people may forget is that poor second halves and shoddy fourth-quarter execution plagued the C’s all season long. Pierce, normally the go-to guy down the stretch of games, was one of the biggest culprits. Without a consistent late-game dosage of Truth serum, the Celtics were a team that lacked design in finishing out games.
So many times this summer, I thought back to that 13-point lead the Celtics held on the final night of the 2010 NBA season. If the Celtics had ’08 Paul Pierce that night, or ’09 Paul Pierce, would things have ended differently? Who knows?
And who knows whether Pierce’s late-game heroics will return this season? His time as a crunch-time killer may already have passed. If so, the Celtics better groom Rajon Rondo as a go-to guy, and quickly. As they proved on the NBA’s biggest stage, when a big road lead starts to dwindle and a deciding game tightens up, a champion needs at least one player it can count on for an important bucket.
At the very least, that player shouldn’t remind anyone of the summer league me.