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June 25th, 2008

Paul Pierce: Ain't It The Truth?

HE'S LONG BEEN A STAR, BUT WITH AN NBA TITLE AT LAST, PAUL PIERCE STEPS INTO THE CELTICS ELITE

Chris Mannix

 

PAUL PIERCE DOESN'T WANT TO TALK about his legacy. Doesn't even want to think about it. Not now, anyway. Not with the prime of his career staring him in the face. Legacies are for retired players to wax poetic about in their golden years and for pundits to debate endlessly on talk radio. They are not a concern for a 30-year-old man who is years away from hanging up his sneakers. "A lot of things are going on throughout the years," says Pierce. "I guess you don't get to realize what you have done over your career or what you have done in special moments until it's all said and done and you can look back and say, Wow, that was pretty amazing."

 

Even before leading Boston to its first NBA Finals in 21 years, Pierce had carved out a spot among the Celtics' greats. Entering the postseason, Pierce ranked in the top 10 in team history in virtually every major offensive category, including points (sixth), assists (eighth), field goals made (10th) and three-pointers made (first). He has been showered with praise by such former Celtics as Tommy Heinsohn, who has called Pierce the best pure scorer in Celtics history, and Larry Bird, who calls the Celtics captain "one of the best players to ever come through there."

 

But despite nearly a decade of dominance that has seen Pierce rival the numbers put up by the likes of Bird and Heinsohn, never before had he been mentioned in the same breath as them. Why? It boils down to one word: championships. They got 'em, Pierce was still looking for one. In Boston, players are measured by the number of rings they wear on their fingers, not gaudy statistics printed in a record book. Only one player, the late Reggie Lewis, has had his number retired in Boston without having won a championship. "And," said Pierce, whose nickname, of course, is the Truth, "I don't know if I want my number to go up there if I don't win a championship." So while Boston's march through the 2008 playoffs was toward the storied franchise's 17th NBA title, it has also served as a chance for Pierce to inject his name into the discussion of alltime Celtics greats.

 

PAUL PIERCE DIDN'T COME TO THE CELTICS with the fanfare that surrounded Bird and Bill Russell or the controversy that accompanied Kevin McHale and his holdout. In fact, Pierce's arrival in Boston was, more than anything else, a stroke of good luck. In the weeks leading up to the 1998 NBA draft, Boston's No. 1 target was German forward Dirk Nowitzki. But when Dallas coach and general manager Don Nelson engineered a trade with Milwaukee that allowed the Mavericks to select Nowitzki ninth, one spot ahead of Boston, the Celtics were left scrambling for a replacement. They settled on Pierce, a 6' 7" Inglewood, Calif.-bred, Kansas-schooled small forward who had slipped in the draft amid reports that he had arrived at his predraft workouts not in the best of shape. But despite not working out Pierce before the draft, Boston eagerly scooped him up with the 10th pick. "When it came to our draft board," said then Celtics G.M. Chris Wallace (now the Memphis Grizzlies' G.M.), "we didn't have Pierce in our state, let alone our neighborhood."

 

From the start it was clear that Pierce was a scorer. A starter from his first game, he began his career scoring 19 or more points in 10 of his first 11 games, and he never looked back. The physically gifted Pierce blended a strong inside game with a fluid shooting stroke that enabled him to make scoring 20 points look easy. By the end of the season Pierce was averaging 16.5 points a game and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. "Paul is the total package," said then Celtics coach Rick Pitino at the time. "We're very, very lucky to have him."

 

In the years that followed, Pierce continued his development into an elite scorer at a staggering rate. In 1999-2000 he averaged 19.5 points in 73 games. In '00-01 Pierce averaged 25.3 points a game and earned his first All-Star selection. Even more impressive about that season was that in September, Pierce had been stabbed 11 times in the neck, face and back after being attacked at a Boston-area nightclub. Though the incident occurred a little over a month before the season opener, Pierce was in the Celtics' starting lineup and scored 28 points on opening night and started all 82 games that season. "It's something you're not going to forget," said Pierce in 2002, adding that he tries to channel the negative feelings from the attack into new intensity on the court. "I'm fortunate to be here," he says. "I feel a lot older from the simple fact I had a brush with death and saw my life flash before my eyes. You grow up 10 times as fast."

 

But while Pierce ascended to superstar status, the Celtics floundered. The 19-win, lockout-shortened 1998-99 season was followed by 35- and 36-win campaigns. In the wake of the stabbing, many began to question Pierce's maturity. Even a surprising run to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals did little to change the minds of critics who maintained that Pierce was not the player to lead the Celtics. In February 2002 McHale was quoted as saying Pierce "couldn't carry Larry Bird's jock."

 

The comparisons with Bird, however unfair, were inevitable. Bird's retirement left a void in the Boston lineup, a void that was filled—at least statistically—upon Pierce's arrival. But while Bird was a lightning rod for media attention in the locker room, Pierce was more deferential, ceding the leadership role early in his career to Antoine Walker. "I think [leadership] is probably the most unfair comparison between Paul and Larry," says longtime Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman. "Paul is a great teammate, but in that respect, they are two different people."

 

Meanwhile, Boston's run to the top of the East was short lived. The following season the Celtics were beaten in the second round by the New Jersey Nets. That off-season, new G.M. Danny Ainge decided the roster needed an overhaul and traded Walker to Dallas. With the team committing to the youth movement, the Celtics bottomed out. The low point came during the 2006-07 season, when the team finished with 24 wins, the second-worst record in the league. Amid rumors that he was looking to be traded, Pierce played in just 47 games, averaging 25 points a game.

 

Then it happened. In one fell swoop (well, two actually) the Celtics added a former NBA MVP ( Kevin Garnett) and a perennial All-Star ( Ray Allen), creating the most potent Celtics lineup since the days of Bird, McHale and Robert Parish. The Celtics went from young to experienced, from a dearth of talent to a wealth of it. "You have to look at Pierce's career and realize that for most of it, he hasn't had much help," says Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay. "He hasn't had anywhere near the help of Bird or Russell or any of the other Celtics greats. But when they brought in Garnett and Allen, I think we finally got to see the type of player Pierce is."

 

FOR MANY PEOPLE, MAY 18, 2008, WILL BE remembered as the day Pierce confirmed his position among the elite. After stumbling to a seven-game series win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics found themselves facing another Game 7 against the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. In one of the greatest performances of his career, Pierce went shot for shot with Cleveland's LeBron James, finishing with 41 points and propelling the Celtics past Cleveland and into the conference finals. "That was the game," says Ramsay. "That was the game that elevated Pierce to that next level." Said James, "I love going against the best. And Paul Pierce is one of those guys."

 

The accolades continued to pour in during the Finals as Pierce, using the NBA's biggest stage, established himself as one of the game's brightest stars. After crumpling to the parquet floor and having to be carried off with a knee injury with 6:48 remaining in the third quarter of the opener, Pierce returned to the game a few minutes later in a Willis Reed-like moment, scoring 11 more points to help the Celtics edge L.A. He would go on to score a combined 50 points in the first two games, helping Boston establish an insurmountable 2-0 advantage.

 

A Game 5 loss turned out to be Pierce's ultimate coming-out party. Playing all 48 minutes, Pierce poured in 38 points while helping limit Kobe Bryant to 25 points (on 8-of-21 shooting). "He's tough," said Bryant. "There's not a lot of players that have a well-rounded offensive game. What I mean by that, he's got a good midrange game, long ball, pull up to the hoop, pull up left, pull up right. He has the whole package. I enjoy watching him play, I enjoy playing against him, and he's fantastic."

 

Lauded by stars, praised by the greats. That's the stuff legends are made of. With a ring on his finger—and the opportunity to add a couple more—Pierce has established himself as one.

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