Many people predicted before last night that Paul Pierce would become more of a distributor in Rajon Rondo’s absence. Pierce often dishes more assists than usual when Rondo misses games, so it was natural to believe he would become a de facto point guard in Rondo’s absence. Pierce, however, maintained the stance he always takes when asked why he scored this, or passed that, or rebounded there. He told everyone who would listen that he’d give the game what it needs, whatever that might be.
Pierce often says basketball games are un-scripted. He practices his moves, refines his footwork, spends hours and hours working on his game so that when the moment comes, he reacts rather than thinks. So when he drilled his first four shots yesterday night, scoring nine points before some Atlanta fans settled into their seats, that probably wasn’t his plan. His plan was to be aggressive, sure, to give the Celtics a boost, to let them know, as if they didn’t already, they could win without Rondo. But scoring all those points came because he looked at the defense, saw openings for himself and took them. The lanes opened up more often because Pierce handled more ball-handling responsibilities, and he meandered into the paint with the slow, effectual pace he always uses when he’s at his best.
I like to think by now I have some weird connection with Paul Pierce where I can tell how he’s going to play from thousands of miles away. Call me deluded, or a fan-boy, or just a fucking oddball, but when Pierce’s shot-making begins to boil I feel like the grandmother whose sore big toe alerts her that a storm is coming — I feel like I can tell when Pierce is about to erupt, because he operates on his own time, lets no opponent rush him, departs on circuitous forays into the painted area more aggressively and more often than the norm. I can’t say I knew he would tally 13 fourth-quarter points, but when Pierce scientifically meandered several times into the three-second key I figured he was ready to boom.
The dagger came later, and it was part of a five-minute span beginning at 6:30 of the fourth quarter during which Pierce outscored the Hawks 11-8 as Boston emerged from a tie game (70-70) to seize an 85-78 advantage. Rarely does Pierce take pull-up threes, not in 2012, not in many years, but hell, he felt it by then, the momentum was all his own, and he saw another opportunity to give the game what it needed, to put Atlanta away once and for all. He dribbled up-court and fired. The basketball tickled the nets. The scoreboard changed to 79-72 with 3:30 remaining. Atlanta called a timeout one second later. Pierce was not a distributor on this night, because that wasn’t what the Celtics required.
Very few players have both the ability and the mentality to do what Pierce has done the past few years, sacrificing large portions of his individual game so his team can function more cohesively. We see everything Pierce can provide on certain nights, often when Rondo does not play, like last night, when it’s clear Pierce is still capable of carrying a team all by his lonesome, but there are other nights when he lets areas of his game hibernate because Rondo needs the ball in his hands and the Celtics are better when No. 9 runs the show. Pierce knows he can do more on a nightly basis, but it would negatively impact the team’s feng shui. It would not be giving the game what it needs, which is how Pierce ultimately measures himself.
Pierce Tebowed at one point yesterday night, kneeling at mid-court in faux prayer as Atlanta fans began to trickle out of the gymnasium. I don’t know if the gesture meant anything. Maybe he’s a Tebow fan during his spare time, or maybe he was insultingly comparing the Jets’ famous backup quarterback to Josh Smith, two lefties whose tosses often miss their mark. (Zing.) Maybe he just figured the moment deserved a celebration and Tebowing was the first celebration which came to mind. The Truth afterward said his Tebow was not “pre-scripted.”
Even if it feels like we’ve read last night’s script dozens of times, neither is the rest of Pierce’s game. He reads, he reacts, and he does whatever he thinks will benefit the Celtics most. Sometimes, that leads to Pierce quietly playing off whatever Rondo’s doing. Other times, it leads to monster 36-point, 14-rebound performances on the game’s biggest stage, the NBA playoffs.
The greats seem to know when the moment beckons. Last night Pierce heard the moment calling, loud and clear.