It’s not so much that he does it, but the way he does it, and the fact that he can do it even if everyone in the building knows it’s coming. Paul Pierce doesn’t rely on athleticism to execute his trademark shot, because if he did the results would not please Doc Rivers. There are plenty of players in the NBA more athletic than Paul Pierce. One night he might play Lebron James. The next he might match up with Andre Iguodala. On a consistent basis, Pierce’s opponents could beat him in the 40-yard dash or a high jump competition. But Pierce can almost always release his step back jumper with no problems, even if a more agile defender knows exactly what he’s going to do.
The move makes the man, or in this case the move explains a lot about what has allowed the man to succeed. Even when Pierce was younger, he was never the league’s best physical specimen. He was never fat, nor close to it, but nobody has ever called his body sculpted either. He’s quick, but not what anyone would call explosive. He can dunk with ease, but he would never be invited to participate in the dunk contest. He can get past players off the dribble, but not with anything remotely resembling Allen Iverson’s first step or Tim Hardaway’s crossover. Instead, Pierce relies on guile, footwork, strength and a beautiful basketball mind.
Just watch Pierce some time when he catches the ball on the perimeter. His scoring repertoire is very complete. He can beat teams from midrange, outside the arc or getting to the rim. But the way he does it can be confounding, because it’s not easy to see how he creates good shots almost whenever he chooses to. Some players have the ability to beat players in a straight line without very many moves. Think Russell Westbrook, who moves almost solely North-South. With his speed, Westbrook could turn off a light switch and get to the hoop before the light went out. He puts on the jets, his defender stands in quicksand, and Westbrook finds himself past his defender and into the paint. For Westbrook, penetration can be that easy. Pierce doesn’t have the same speed, so he can’t accelerate past people like he’s a Ferrari racing against a parked car. He also can’t rely on the handle of, say, a Jamal Crawford. But Crawford uses his handle to accomplish the same results Pierce does. Specifically, both players thrive on using an opponent’s motion against him. If Pierce can get his opponent moving backwards, he has space to stop and shoot. If he can get his opponent moving left, he can drive past him to the right. If he can change speeds and force his opponent to lose balance, even for a split second, Pierce gains an advantage. Because of Pierce’s strength, balance and variety of shots, all he needs is a fingernail of space.
You’ve seen his trademark move a thousand times. Pierce dribbles to his right, steps back off his left foot, fades away to create even more space, then releases the shot his opponent knows is coming, the shot his opponent still has no chance to block. What you may not realize is why the move works so effectively. Since Pierce can score driving to the hoop just as well as he can fading away from it, defenders need to respect his handle. So when Pierce takes a hard dribble to his right, the opponent fears Pierce will go by him. Of course, if the defender fails to react to Pierce’s initial hard dribble, that’s just what he will do. More often than not, though, Pierce’s defender takes a step back to fend off an easy Pierce drive. As soon as the defender begins moving backward, he’s under Pierce’s control. Pierce stops instantly while the defender is still backpedaling and fades away to create more separation, giving him just enough space to release his shot even as the defender frantically attempts to recover.
That Pierce executes the whole move with efficient, proper footwork is crucial to the move’s success. He can take two long strides to his right and plant his left foot seamlessly, moving into his stepback jumper without any hesitation whatsoever. Certain players, Lebron James being one of them, sometimes use half-steps (almost stutter steps) to prepare themselves for a shot. James, though his attention to detail improves each year, can get by with these imperfections in his footwork because he’s so devastatingly athletic. Since Pierce doesn’t possess Lebron’s superhuman physical traits, he’s not afforded the same margin of error—wasting precious split-seconds of time could prove detrimental.
That he has developed such efficient footwork is a testament to Pierce’s work ethic. In the recently-published book “Basketball Junkie” (which is awesome, go read it), ex-Celtic Chris Herren reminisced about his former teammates. His most notable observations: Kenny Anderson drank too much, Antoine Walker spent too much money (shocker), Vitaly Potapenko did not get along with Mark Blount (there’s an anecdote in the book that involves the use of the word “skull-fuck,” so that was fun), and Pierce would always beat everyone else to the gym. By the time Herren arrived at practice, Pierce would often be doused with sweat. He had already put himself through a number of drills, and would remain after practice to do the same. A number of basketball skills can be developed during full-court play; awareness, certain moves, ball-handling (to an extent), and many other skills I don’t have the time to mention. But good footwork comes best from repetition. Point me to someone with efficient footwork (think Kobe Bryant or, in the post, Kevin Garnett) and I’ll show you a gym rat who spends hours each day going through drills.
During his many hours spent in the gym, Pierce has developed offensive versatility that allows him to score from anywhere inside 26 or 27 feet. You’ve probably heard Pierce and Carmelo Anthony mentioned as “professional scorers.” What the term means is that they can score just about any way you’d ask them to, and with a rare efficiency of motion. They can post up one possession, drain a three-pointer the next, then finish a spin move with an and-one on the following possession. In Chris Ballard’s “The Art of a Beautiful Game,” a basketball trainer named Idan Ravin marvels at Carmelo’s ability to waste very little movement. He remarks that Carmelo hardly ever dribbles the basketball more than three times. Because Carmelo can score from anywhere on the court, he doesn’t have to. He makes one or two hard dribbles and then rises right into his shot. The key phrase from that last sentence: his shot. Carmelo, like Pierce, dictates the terms of his own shot. Rarely will you see Pierce off-balance in any way. Even on his misses, he dictates the shot he takes, rather than letting the defense force him into a bad look. He can do that because his polished offensive game allows him to counter any strategy a defender might take. Pierce has mastered working an opponent to his favorite spots and getting off the shots he prefers.
If you’ve watched Pierce play basketball, you know he doesn’t play with Ray Allen’s natural elegance. If Allen’s game is as smooth as the top of his bald head, Pierce’s game is more like the scruff that The Truth calls facial hair. Everything from Pierce’s shooting form (he often leans his body as if begging the ball to go through the hoop) to his slower, methodical drives to the hoop seem like the result of years of practice rather than natural-born talent. Obviously, at 6’7 and athletic (relative to the general population), Pierce was born with certain traits that translate quite well to the basketball court. But as I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t have the type of otherworldly traits that make basketball look so easy for certain players. He doesn’t have Lebron’s explosiveness, Josh Smith’s leaping ability, Karl Malone’s physique, Rajon Rondo’s speed or Ray Allen’s grace. Pierce is more of a mortal, a star who succeeds not because of natural gifts but because of fundamentals less obvious to the untrained observer.
Next time Pierce gets the ball at the top of the key and the other Celtics clear out, remember all that. The defender should know what’s coming, but there’s always the threat that Pierce will go to the hoop instead of using his patented step back. And the threat of a drive will be enough, because the defender will start to back up, and he’ll lose balance ever so slightly, and as soon as that happens, Pierce is in control.
You know what happens next.
- Today is Kevin Garnett’s birthday. Happy birthday, sir.
- HoopsWorld mentioned today (and the Globe mentioned a few days ago) that Jamal Crawford would make a good fit in Boston. What do you guys think?