Since July 12, 2013, it hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been easy for Paul Pierce, and it hasn’t been easy for Boston Celtics fans. Pierce, aka “The Truth,” returned to Boston as a visiting player for the first time. And while we were happy to see him, it was a reminder that we don’t get to watch him play in the Garden at least 41 times a year.
Writing about Pierce is easy. Over the last 15 years or so, there are only a handful of players who have impacted a franchise and their fans as much as Pierce did during his long tenure in Boston. Even during his later years with the team, it was hard not to reflect on his accomplishments after he would put together a performance that would rehash nostalgic feelings in the Celtics faithful. So it is no wonder that after his return to Boston last night that the internet is overflowing with articles reminiscing about Pierce.
It starts with his swagger. Pierce entered the league somewhat under the radar, but that didn’t stop him from carrying himself like he was the number one pick in the draft. He wasn’t the most athletic guy on the court, nor was he the best shooter or dribbler, but he always managed to get where he wanted to go, or managed to hit a clutch jump-shot towards the end of games. It was almost impossible for young Celtics fans not to love Pierce (Stabbing incident and subsequent comeback aside).
The Pierce-led Celtics teams of the early 2000’s pumped some life back into the franchise that was stagnant during the mid-to-late 90’s. Though admittedly, Antoine Walker’s shimmy always played a role in my life, perhaps no moment exemplified the attitude of those Celtics teams more than Pierce hitting a game-winning three-pointer over Al Harrington during Game Four in the First Round of the 2003 playoffs…
You can see Pierce jawing with Harrington before canning the shot to win the game. Though we haven’t gotten to see him trash talk so vividly since, watching Pierce nail game-winning, step-back jumpers became commonplace. The problem was that for several years those shots were coming in meaningless games. Pierce was playing with poor talent in the physically challenged Eastern Conference and his highlights and accomplishments seemed to be brushed off by the national media.
The fans felt Pierce’s frustration. Constant rumors arose that he was going to be moved. The Corey Maggette trade rumors swirled for about two years, but thankfully, GM Danny Ainge never pulled the trigger. Though I can’t say what really went on during any phone calls between Ainge and other general managers, it was obvious that Ainge and Pierce shared something. They shared the confidence in Pierce that one day he would lead a Celtics team to the promised land. It took acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen along with some other pieces to get the job done. However, it wasn’t that season that cemented “The Truth’s” legacy to Celtics fans.
The rest of the NBA populace became more aware of Pierce’s contributions to the Celtics as the 2007-2008 NBA season moved along. As the Celtics appeared more and more on national television, so too did highlights of Pierce during his first decade in the league, videos that my colleagues weren’t even sharing on YouTube. Conversations about him leading the Celtics to that historic comeback against the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference finals were taking place about eight years after the fact. I was happy to be able to share my experiences watching Pierce play with those who didn’t fully understand why we called him “The Truth” (Thank you Shaq).
Then we hit the NBA playoffs and people got to see what separated Paul from the rest of his peers, the clutch factor. There is no denying that Garnett’s arrival is what truly changed Boston’s team dynamic. However, when the team needed a basket at the end of a playoff game, or needed someone to facilitate in those same instances, Pierce’s number was called again and again. Everyone knows about Game One of the NBA Finals and the “Wheelchair Incident,” where Pierce was carried off the court like he was an unconscious Jackie Moon, only to return and nail two big threes to help the Celts take the game against the Lakers.
But that isn’t the moment that sticks out to me after all of those years. During the phenomenal Game Four comeback (which seems to have been forgotten?!?!), Pierce made a huge block on a Kobe Bryant jumper to help keep the Lakers offense at bay while the Celts made their move. Anyone who has played basketball knows how difficult it is to block a jumper, and you need the utmost confidence to even attempt such a play (FYI, below is a video if the entire comeback, maybe the best video on the web today).
As the years went on and Pierce and KG got older, it was obvious that the next chapter in Celtics lore needed to begin. That led to Pierce, Garnett, and Allen heading for greener pastures. It is amazing to watch Pierce play today as that confidence is still there. He doesn’t move the way he used to and he has become a set shooter in his advanced age, but he still plays the game the same way he did in 1998. You can see some of that confidence in Rajon Rondo’s game today, some of which I am sure he picked up from Pierce and the rest of the original big three.
Pierce’s imprint on the franchise was always going to have a lasting effect, even without banner 17. His resiliency and determination is something that characterized all of those Celtics teams from Antoine Walker and Tony Battie to Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. It is hard to read and learn about Pierce’s career and not put his experiences in perspective as both a player and a member of the Boston community. Whether it was when he was stabbed early on his career, or all of the charity work he has done for the greater Boston area, Pierce has set the ultimate example in both how to play the game and how playing the game can help others.
Watching his return last night was difficult. The crowd was so happy to see him back and he looked thrilled to be back in the Garden (Frankly, his Garden, since none of the other legends have ever played a game in it). The in-game tribute was beautiful and I only wish it was longer. There is always the replay button…