I first noticed it sometime late last season, and it became more evident than ever in Round Two against Lebron James. Something was wrong with Paul Pierce.
Pierce normally held his own against the world’s best players, and often times he would outplay them. He even made the claim in 2008 that he was the best, and after winning duels against Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, he had at least earned the right to say that… even if the claim would be almost universally disputed by any objective basketball fan. Yet last year, the world’s best players held Pierce at bay. In the playoffs, when Pierce usually raises his play, he held back. After averaging just 13.5 points against Lebron, Pierce used an excuse that went something like, “Guys, I’m playing against Lebron James. Give me a break.” But we remembered the 41 points in the memorable 2008 Game 7, and we knew:
Something was wrong.
At the time, I thought it might have been the first signs of aging. After 884 regular season games and almost 100 playoff matchups (101 now), who could have blamed Pierce for being a step or two slow? Who could have blamed him for being unable to get to the hoop at will? Players get older and they lose explosiveness. It happens to everyone, from Michael Jordan all the way down to Bimbo Coles. It wasn’t surprising for it to happen to a Celtic (or two or three Celtics), even if it sucked.
I even wrote a post about Pierce’s clutch production. Long story short, his production in late-game situations plummeted. When defenses keyed on him, he couldn’t create his own offense like he once could. In that post, I wondered whether Pierce could ever retrieve the magic. Was it gone forever, or had he just been banged up? I wondered what would have happened if ’08 Pierce had showed up for the ’10 NBA Finals. I wondered if the Celtics wouldn’t have been able to keep that 13-point lead. I kicked myself back to reality:
’08 Pierce might be dead and gone.
Or maybe not. Pierce returned to camp slimmer and more explosive than he has in a couple years. He made a couple moves each preseason game that caused me to reminisce about the Antoine Walker days, in a good way. Pierce danced around a New Jersey Net for an and-one, and I briefly saw ’02 Pierce leading that 21-point Eastern Conference Finals comeback. He made an uber-quick spin move in the lane, and I saw flashes of ’03 Pierce dropping a playoff 40 against Ron Artest. Maybe Pierce would find his way. There was light.
Then he finally opened up about last season’s hardships to Jackie MacMullan. He wasn’t too old to do Paul Pierce things last year, he explained. He was too hurt.
So hurt that he contemplated shutting it down for the season. So hurt that he drained fluid from his knee nearly every week. So hurt that, once in a while, his knee would “pop open” and fluid would squirt out across the room.
“If you are interested, I have the video to prove it,” Pierce told MacMullan. Umm, we’ll take your word for it.
Pierce soldiered through the pain, probably being a little stubborn at times.
“I told them I was fine,” he told MacMullan, “but I had this fluid leaking out all over the place. It wasn’t so much the pain. I just lost all my strength. I played a lot of last season on basically one leg.”
Now he has two legs. And he expects to be doing Paul Pierce things again this season. Unlike Shaq, whose position in history is cemented, Pierce has unfinished business. He doesn’t have four rings, four titles. He disputed Michael Jordan’s claim that winning one title is lucky (“There’s nothing lucky about winning a championship. They all count. They all matter.”), but that doesn’t mean he’s content.
“I’m still trying to move up the ladder,” he told MacMullan. “I’m not done yet.”
He added, “I feel great for the first time in a long time.”
Ain’t that The Truth.