By Torkil Bang
Paul Pierce put on the green jersey for the last time as a player on Monday when he signed a deal with Boston in order to officially retire as a Celtic. A full circle for his career, but a circle that might have been interrupted several times since he entered the NBA in 1998.
The 39-year old Pierce played his final NBA game when his Los Angeles Clippers lost Game 7 against the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. A total of 19 seasons in the NBA, including one championship and a Finals MVP selection that defines his legacy and ensures that he will enter the Hall of Fame.
As the second leading scorer in Celtics history behind John Havlicek, he would have been a legend in Boston either way, though it was touch and go before the 2007-08 season.
Pierce had one foot out the door in 2007
If Danny Ainge hadn’t been able to trade for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, there’s a near 100 percent chance Pierce would have asked for and gotten a trade out of Boston. And Pierce might have ended his time in Boston as another ”what-if.”
Ironically, he ended up leaving the city at a time when he, and probably most of the fans, saw him retiring as a Celtic as the only way to go out. It took a long time for him to settle emotionally while playing for Brooklyn and he never gained the kind of relationship he had with the fans in Boston, who knew him as ”the Captain” while the rest of the NBA called him ”the Truth.”
The climax of Pierce’s final season was when he hit the final shot in the TD Garden in a Clippers’ loss, and that way kept an unbroken streak throughout his career: For 19 seasons he never left the TD Garden without making at least one field goal. The Celtics fans celebrated Pierce as if he had just won the game for them, but it was his legacy that they celebrated.
The biggest surprise on draft night 1998
It wasn’t always that way, though. There were plenty of road bumps, some deeper than others, before Pierce and Boston became one.
First of all, he had to drop to Boston’s pick (number 10) in the 1998 draft and he was projected to go in the top five—some projections even had him at number two. For Boston, he was a top three player according to then GM/head coach Rick Pitino. They had hoped to draft Dirk Nowitzki ,who fell to number nine, before the Dallas Mavericks traded up to that pick and ran away with another future Hall of Famer.
For Pitino and his crew, the question was: Why has everyone passed on Pierce?
They even called his Kansas coach, Roy Williams, who ensured them that Pierce had a clean bill of health.
It was a shock for Pierce, too, according to boston.com:
BDC: What was your first reaction when the Celtics picked you?
PP: I think I was just in shock. At the time I was projected as top-five pick. I never went to Boston, never worked out for them. I remember talking to my good friend Chauncey Billups at the time when he was playing for Boston and I was still in college. I would ask him stories about the NBA, and he kind of like scared me how training camp was going with Rick Pitino. When they picked me I was like, ‘What?” I really couldn’t believe it, because it came out of nowhere. I wasn’t projected at all to fall that far. Only thing I could think of was, team I hated growing up, and Rick Pitino is down there killing everybody in practice. It was mixed feelings, but at the same time it was like, I’m happy to be drafted in the NBA.
It’s still a good question why Pierce dropped that far, but it turned out to be a pretty good match.
No team success under Pitino
It was evident from the start that Paul Pierce was a potential franchise player. His crafty, intelligent and mostly-below-the-basket-but-actually-athletic game that had given him a stellar college career in Kansas translated perfectly to the NBA. He was selected to the All-Rookie First Team and was placed third in the Rookie of the Year voting, though his season numbers were close to the winner, Vince Carter.
The second bump on the road to a happy marriage with Boston was the lack of team success under Rick Pitino. Pitino’s infamous “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door…” rant actually came in defense of the team after Pierce had missed a game clincher against Toronto only to see Vince Carter seconds later win the game for the Raptors. In 2015 Pierce wrote about it in The Player’s Tribune:
More than a decade later, I still remember that sick feeling I had after the shot went in. In the locker room afterwards, while I was close to tears, Coach Pitino was defending our effort to the press. He’s a great coach. I still keep in touch with him to this day.
Stabbed 11 times, one month before the season started
The third ”bump” could have killed Pierce or easily derailed his career: He was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck and back and hit over the head with a bottle when he tried to break up a fight in a night club on Sep. 25, 2000. His then teammate Tony Battie and Battie’s brother took him to hospital where he had lung surgery.
Pierce still played the whole 2000-01 season without missing a game. He even bumped his scoring average from 19 points per game to 25 points per game, a level he kept until he was joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007. From his third season in the league he would give Boston 25 points, six or seven rebounds and four assists any given night with a True Shooting percentage in the late 50’s.
Bill Simmons suggests in his ”The Book of Basketball” that Pierce never really dealt with the near-death experience and became an angry person, and played like that on the court.
Whatever the reason was, Pierce, while playing heroic basketball, became harder to root for. He played with a bad attitude and was a diva on and off court.
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Reaching the conference finals for the first time
After Pitino was replaced as both head coach and GM, Boston had success with Pierce and Antoine Walker as the central players in the early 00’s. They reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002, after a huge turnaround season with Pierce as the leading force, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. While their effort in the ECF wasn’t enough to reach the Finals, they could boast of the biggest comeback in playoff history:
The video above shows Pierce’s main strength on offense, his ability to get to the basket and finish almost no matter what or who you throw at him.
The team around him soon fell apart, though. The next season the Celtics were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the secound round and when Danny Ainge became GM in 2003 under the new (and current) ownership he wanted to shake things up, starting with trading Antoine Walker to Dallas.
The revamped team didn’t do any better, and after failing to get out of the first round in 2004 and 2005 (even after reacquiring Walker to appease Pierce before the 2004-2005 season), Pierce started questioning whether he should stay in Boston.
In the summer of 2005, Boston GM Danny Ainge reached an agreement with Portland to trade for the number three pick, which he would have used on Chris Paul. But Pierce himself told The Vertical Podcast With Chris Mannix last year that he wanted to go to Dallas rather than Portland, who were still reeling from the “Jail Blazers” experience. Nobody wanted to do a trade against Pierce’s wishes, so the deal fell through.
The next two seasons were hard to go through for both Boston and Pierce. The 2006-2007 season became a tank job as soon as Pierce got an injury and he was kept on the sideline long enough to ensure that the Celtics got one of the worst records in the league.
Boston lost the lottery, though, and the chance to draft Kevin Durant (or Greg Oden for that matter). Instead, Ainge completed a plan that had been laid out for a couple of years and traded a handful of young players and draft picks for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
The Big Three era starts with a bang
As late as in the summer of 2007 Pierce thought that he might have played his last game in Boston, but instead he found himself playing with two future Hall of Famers. And somewhere along the way he had dropped some of the ”dumb stuff” he used to do, like partying too much, the permanent scowling and trying to do too much at the end of games. He had become a leader while still being able to carry the team when needed, like he did in Game 7 of the 2008 conference semifinals against Cleveland.
This was probably the best Cavaliers team, LeBron had before leaving for Miami. Their roster had a huge overhaul during the season, but the playoff rotation was actually very good. And yet it ended in a duel between Pierce (41 points) and LeBron (45 points), but with Pierce scoring incredibly efficient (72.5 TS%) and taking the win.
In the finals there was the infamous wheelchair incident in Game 1. Lakers fans have not forgotten and to this day they mock him for it. They assume that the wheelchair was a prop for a theatrical Willis Reed-like ”comeback” because he returned only minutes later after being wheeled off the court. While it is possible, it does sound awfully much like a conspiracy theory, since wheeling an injured player to the trainer’s room to get examined would be the normal thing to do with a knee injury, even if it turns out to be nothing.
Theatrics or no theatrics, Pierce prevailed and became finals MVP, leading Boston to the first championship since 1986, thus ending by far the longest drought in franchise history.
Five years as a contender
The next five seasons added “durability” to Pierce’s legacy, even though the Celtics only reached the 2010 NBA finals, which they might have won were it not for a Kendrick Perkins knee injury.
The championship window was probably open longer than expected due to the rise of Rajon Rondo, who became the fourth leader on the team, but eventually it closed after a gutsy finish to the 2011-2012 season where the aging Celtics (Pierce was 34 years old, Garnett and Allen were both 36 at the time of the ECF) made an improbable conference finals run and even pushed Miami to seven games.
The Celtics had their chance in Game 6 in the TD Garden, but they were overwhelmed by an incredible performance by LeBron James. Nevertheless, the fans just kept chanting for this team.
After the expected game seven loss, Ray Allen who had been demoted to the bench, chose to join Miami the next season, while the Celtics hoped they would be able to retool and further develop Rondo as a team leader.
Those hopes came to a halt when Rondo tore his ACL halfway through the 2012-2013 season. Pierce was once again the leading scorer, averaging 18.6 points per game. The Celtics went out in the first round, losing 2-4 to the Knicks. The point-guard-by-committee solution with Pierce as the most used playmaker, which Doc Rivers had employed after Rondo’s injury, didn’t stand up for a playoff run.
Ainge gets an offer he can’t refuse
The conclusion for Ainge and Doc Rivers after that season was that the championship window had closed. The Celtics didn’t have the assets or cap room to retool with a top ten player, which was what they needed at that time. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce probably agreed on that, since Garnett gave up his no-trade clause, so that Boston could start rebuilding.
Pierce was visibly more reluctant about leaving Boston. He probably wanted to take Havlicek’s scoring record and ride off to the sunset with his buddy, KG.
But the Brooklyn Nets offer, which has grown in infamy over the years, was not one that Danny Ainge could refuse and from the outside it must have looked quite interesting for Pierce and Garnett to join Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brooke Lopez and chase another championship. This team lacked something in leadership and chemistry, though, and they didn’t stand a chance against Miami in the second round of the playoffs.
After one year in Brooklyn, Pierce moved on to Washington where he still had a big role as a finisher in the playoffs. Especially his game winning buzzerbeater against Atlanta in game three of the second round will be remembered:
Atlanta won the series, and in the off-season Paul Pierce decided to say yes to the chance to play in his home town, Los Angeles, where he was reunited with Doc Rivers.
Let’s just say that those two seasons with the Clippers are the most forgettable of his career, except from the above mentioned farewell game in the TD Garden. His decline was obvious, and the team needed more than he could give, which made it all a bit awkward.
It’s like a correction of a wrong timeline that Paul Pierce gets to retire as a Celtic instead of a Clipper. The next step is already in the works, Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck has confirmed that jersey number 34 will be retired and raised to the rafters in the TD Garden.
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