The important thing to understand about Paul Pierce is that he is at heart, a dreamer. When he was young, what he used to dream about was the NBA finals.
He would be in the gym, putting up shots, and let his mind wander to the Celtic-Lakers battles of the 80’s. As a kid in Inglewood, one would think it wouldn’t be hard to guess what uniform he was wearing in his childhood imagination.
But Pierce’s mind doesn’t quite work that way. He didn’t envision scenarios or plays or even teams. He just saw himself holding that trophy. He had such an unshakeable vision that this would be his fate that when it finally arrived he had what he called, “Déjà vu.”
“You put yourself in those positions so many times as a competitor,” he said. “That when you get to it you feel like, hey, I’m supposed to be there.”
The other thing to understand about Pierce is that he is an unusual combination of conscious and confidence. This mixture is his best asset as a player, beyond his physical skills, because it has informed every step of his career.
He cares, deeply, but not so much that he is ever paralyzed by the situation at hand. He is at his best in close-out games and pressure-filled moments.
Already in the playoffs, we’ve seen him hit a game-winner against Miami in a pivotal Game 3 that ensured it would be a short series. He made all the key plays in Game 2 against the Magic, and it’s not hard to imagine what would have happened in that series if the Celtics hadn’t stolen that game.
Then in Game 6, with the pressure coming at the Celtics from all sides, he scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in what should be remembered as a very-close second to his signature game — the duel with LeBron James in Game 7 of their 2008 playoff series.
As for conscious, Pierce made himself available to answer every question, and not offer any excuses at that, during this year’s series with the Cavs.
“You have to soak in the moment and enjoy it and not shy away from it,” he said. “I think some people get intimidated by being in the championship, but I enjoy it.”
As they say, it’s not bragging if you can back it up, and in 2008 Pierce backed up 10 years worth of bravado with a bravura performance in the finals, winning the MVP award and delivering the Celtics — his Celtics — a championship.
Far more than any other player on the team, Pierce is living, breathing Celtics history. He has scored more points in his career than anyone who has worn the uniform not named Larry Bird or John Havlicek, and assuming he sticks around for the rest of his career, he will be no worse than second when he’s done.
His name is scattered around the rest of the Celtics record book with the Havliceks and Birds, as well as the Russells, Cousys and whomever else you care to name.
There is a lot of talk going into the 2010 finals about Kobe Bryant and his legacy. A fifth championship would move him ahead of Shaquille O’Neal and tie him with Magic Johnson. A victory over the Celtics would also make his Laker legend complete.
But Pierce is playing for his own place in history. It has been said, and he has agreed with this assessment, that you can’t really carve out a place in this team’s illustrious history with just one title. If you think about it, we’ve never had to actually make that judgment and Pierce would prefer to keep it that way.
“It means everything,” he said. “It would further solidify what I’ve done in my career in Boston. Hopefully it could move me up the ranks of the great Celtics of all time and maybe in NBA history if you win another title.”
It’s all there in that one quote. The dreams, the ambition, the confidence, the consciousness to understand that he is a part of something and that he desperately wants his rightful place at the table.
“For me, I’ve accepted the Celtics tradition,” he said. “I’m a part of it. I’m here now and I’m full-blown Celtic.”
It has been something of an amazing transformation in the latter days of his career to get to this point, but it was always there in the back of his mind. The problem was getting other people to recognize it. The first person he had to convince was Doc Rivers.
When Rivers was hired to coach the Celtics they were in the midst of a transition period from a somewhat-successful veteran team to a developing young one. Rivers had in mind a certain way of playing and Pierce had his own. They both wanted to win and they both wanted it to work, but they were destined to clash.
To Rivers, offensive basketball is best played by five players operating in synch with another, working off each other’s strengths and utilizing each other to maximize their talents and benefit the team.
It wasn’t that Pierce was opposed to this, it was just who was he supposed to work with in this pursuit. Ricky Davis?
“I’m the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks,” he famously said. And with the hindsight of history, it’s become abundantly clear he was right.
What wasn’t so clear, at least initially, is how Pierce would react once he actually was surrounded by other players on his level. But from the moment Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett arrived, Pierce seamlessly adjusted his game without complaint.
In 2006-07, he averaged over 25 points a game and used over 30 percent of the team’s possessions. Those are superstar numbers, but the 2007 Celtics were not very good.
In the first year of the big three, Pierce’s scoring average dropped to under 20 points a game and his Usage Rate was around 25 percent, and both have stayed remarkably consistent during this era.
In order for the Celtics to be the Celtics each of them must be allowed to have their individual quirks, ticks and space, but each of them must also be willing to grant the others leeway, especially on the court.
“We understood that since we put this team together,” Pierce said during a morning shootaround in Orlando. “That’s the way it works.”
It is safe to say that Pierce and Rivers aren’t just on the same page, they’re writing the same book. Listen to the things that Rivers says to the press and compare it with the things that Pierce says; they’re almost always in lock-step with each other.
“You play for coaches when things aren’t going right, the practices get harder, the yelling gets louder,” Pierce said. “Doc is a cool customer. He didn’t panic. He didn’t get louder. He just stuck with the gameplan. You never saw that with Doc. He always stayed positive and encouraged us even when things weren’t going well. I think that was big for us.”
And since we’re talking about legacies, Pierce had this to say about his coach: “I’m going to put him right up there. This is the only coach I ever want to play for again. You have to put him up there with the top five coaches. Phil [Jackson], [Gregg] Popovich, I put Doc right up there.”
It won’t be easy for any of them. Pierce, Doc, Kobe, Phil. Everyone in this series is playing for today, but they also understand that they are playing for history, as well. It’s just the way it is when the Celtics play the Lakers.
“Both team want to win a title, but I think both teams are happy they’re playing the team they’re playing,” Rivers said. “It’s exactly the way we envisioned it in training camp and it’s probably the same way they envisioned it.”
If Pierce is going to take his place alongside the immortals, he’s going to have to do it against a player he called, “one of the great defenders the NBA has ever seen,” Ron Artest.
“He plays you like a power forward, center,” Pierce said. “He likes to bang you, get in your body. Grab you, hold you, pull your shorts down [a reference to one of Artest’s weirder tactics against him]. He’s going to try anything to get in his opponent’s head. I try to play my game and not get into the antics with him.”
There was a time when some of Pierce’s antics overshadowed his play, but those days seem long ago. Yes, he has been known to oversell an injury or two (oversell is putting it mildly), but that belies the fact that he has willingly played in pain, sometimes to his long-term detriment.
It belies the fact that he cares about all this. He cares about being considered one of the best in the game and he cares about winning another championship for the Celtics.
He is simply living the dream.