Boston was clinging to a 98-96 lead with 11 seconds left against the Orlando Magic when Paul Pierce almost made a critical mistake. The Celtics ran a ball screen to draw Pierce a switch so he would be guarded by Glen Davis, and Pierce started to make his move. He stepped backward to gain a little space and began a strong dribble to his left. But his feet never started the same move. They slipped on the floor and Pierce almost fell to his knees.
It was then that practice got thrown out the window and Pierce’s natural talent took over. As calculated as he often seems, as cunning and planned and deliberate as most of his moves come off, Pierce didn’t get to this point in his career without an ability to improvise.
“This is un-scripted. I’m not thinking, ‘Ooh, I slipped, let me go take this shot.’ It’s just something that happens, you play off instinct. I wanted to get the shot off, I slipped, looked over at the clock and I was able to get it off in time,” he said.
The shot fell after he switched from distribution mode into late-game killer, a transition Pierce goes through occasionally, especially when Rajon Rondo misses time due to injury. The Truth loves a phrase “give the game what it needs” and during circumstances when Rondo cannot be on the floor, Pierce has a talent to chameleon into whatever role the Celtics most desire.
Last night, that led to a career high 14 assists. In the 11 outings Rondo has missed, Pierce is averaging 7.6 assists per game, 66 percent more than his season average of 4.6 dimes. With Rondo out of Boston’s lineup this season, Pierce has three double-digit assist games. With Rondo healthy, he has none. He understands what the Celtics need from him and he changes nightly based on what his new role may be. Glen Davis should have taken notes from Pierce last season. Big Baby often complained about his changing status last season; Pierce understands that roles alter depending on circumstance.
It even reached the point against the Magic that Pierce might have taken his role as point-forward too far.
“Early on he was trying to be a distributor and I told him, ‘Distribute to the basket. That’s really important for us tonight,’” joked Doc Rivers.
“I just took what was given to me,” Pierce defended himself, adding, “Tonight I just had opportunities to handle the ball a little more. Usually that’s Rondo’s job and I’m cutting, slashing, trying to get open without the ball. Tonight it was in my hands, I could do a lot of playmaking. So I wanted to be aggressive looking to score, and if not, I just wanted to make easy passes.”
Pierce makes everything sound simple, like basketball can be easily reduced to, “Look to drive first. If your penetration gets cut off, drop a bounce pass behind you for an assist to Brandon Bass or Kevin Garnett.” For years, he has been the player who thrives despite a lack of preternatural athleticism. He occasionally dunks in traffic, but he would never threaten to claim a dunk contest title. He can shoot, but it doesn’t always look pretty. He sometimes leans, like his shot needs a little extra boost, like his jumper maybe isn’t a natural motion but something he molded into an asset through hundreds of thousands of repetitions.
“He’s very deceptive. He has great moves, he knows how to use his body, he knows how to draw fouls,” Jason Richardson explained.
Added Doc Rivers, “Paul’s not flashy. I don’t even know how Paul scores sometimes. He doesn’t look like he’s that quick, but he is. He just has a gift — he’s a professional scorer.”
But to call Pierce a professional scorer is to lessen everything else he can provide, to ignore every time he morphs into Rondo because that’s what the Celtics need on that given night. There aren’t many other players who can score 43 points on 19 field goal attempts one night and return the next to dish 14 assists. There aren’t many other players both willing and capable to totally transform their games depending on what the unfolding scenario calls for.
“Paul’s been doing what he needs to do all year. If we need him to score he’s been scoring. Tonight, we could use him to distribute a little bit and that’s what he did. It’s been great. These guys just want to win. It doesn’t matter what role they’ll play that night,” said Greg Stiemsma, adding, “We have a special group of guys here who have been through it, who know what needs to be done every night. And they have the ability to go out and do it.”
As Pierce noted, this is all un-scripted. Sometimes he gets double-teamed off the pick-and-roll and needs to find an open teammate. Other times he’s single-teamed with a mismatch; then, it’s go time. And once in a while, Rondo misses games and Pierce needs to wear multiple caps, to act as playmaker for 36 minutes and crunch-time killer for the final twelve.
Players slip on the floor. Teammates get injured. Roles flip upside down, even within the same game. Sometimes, success relies on the ability and willingness to react to whatever variables go astray.