Paul Pierce will play his final game in a building he called home while creating countless memories for 15 years (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today)
History won’t only be taking place in Houston’s NRG Stadium on Sunday.
Nearly 2,000 miles away from Super Bowl LI, the purest scorer in Celtics history will play his last game in Boston.
Paul Pierce, who plans to retire after this season, will give Celtics fans one final performance on his beloved parquet when the Clippers visit TD Garden in a pre-Super Bowl matinee at 2 p.m.
Although it’s been nearly four years since Pierce donned a Celtics uniform, his contributions to the city and organization feel fresh. Fifteen years and one unforgettable title ensure him of immortality.
Celtics legends Larry Bird and John Havlicek often headline discussions of the franchise’s best pure scorer, but was there a more dynamic offensive force than Pierce? He could score at a high rate in every way imaginable.
Pierce could take his defender to the rim, score from the mid-range, hit 3’s, and make shots with victory on the line, as his dozen-plus game-winners prove. The 10-time All-Star was an offensive assassin. And his career numbers back it up.
Not only does he lead the Celtics in most 3-pointers and free-throws made but in both statistical categories, he’s top-10 in NBA history. Only three NBA players have drained more 3-pointers than Pierce (2,137) and he’s eighth in free-throws made (6,916).
He enters Sunday’s game as the 16th leading scorer in league history with 26,361 career points, fittingly, right behind Celtics legend Havlicek (26,395), who is 15th on the list.
Pierce is not only the best pure scorer in Celtics history, he’s also one of the most gifted offensive talents in league history. Despite being overshadowed by great scorers throughout his prime, starting with Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant in the early 2000s and ending with LeBron James today, Pierce eventually earned his place in their company. Unlike Bird and Havlicek, Pierce didn’t win right away. He entered the league in 1998 at the start of the post-Michael Jordan era and suffered through dizzying ups and downs before help arrived in the form of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who helped Pierce win the franchise’s 17th title in 2008.
Pierce led the Celtics to the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals by outplaying Iverson and dropping 48 points on the 76ers in the decisive Game 5. He then produced the highlight of that postseason by carrying the Celtics all the way back from a 26-point deficit against the Nets with the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in playoff history.
It took six years for the Celtics to make another deep playoff run, but it proved worth the wait.
After averaging a career-high 26.8 points and shooting 47 percent from the floor in 2005-06, Pierce and the Celtics struggled through a miserable 24-win 2006-07. But everything changed when Danny Ainge acquired Allen and Garnett that summer, giving Pierce the help he needed to prove his name belonged alongside guys like Bryant and James.
Pierce led the Celtics past the Cavaliers that postseason by surpassing James in a classic Game 7 duel. Pierce finished with 41 points and eventually pushed the C’s to the Finals, where he wrote another chapter in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. He then cemented his place in Celtics history by beating Bryant, being named Finals MVP, and finally leading the Celtics to banner No. 17.
At that moment, he might’ve been the best basketball player in the world. The summer after winning it all, he was asked if he’d name Bryant the best player in the league.
“I don’t think Kobe is the best player,” Pierce replied confidently. “I’m the best player.”
Pierce’s confidence made him great, but so did the chip he carried on his shoulder after dropping to 10th in the ’98 draft, behind forgettable players like Michael Olowokandi, Tractor Traylor, and Larry Hughes. In fact, it fueled him.
It’s amazing to consider what Pierce didn’t accomplish in his career. He never made first-team All-NBA, he never started an All-Star Game, and he never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting. But his achievements far outstrip those snubs.
He honed an offensive game that defeated the two greatest players of his generation in the same postseason. His textbook footwork and fade-away step back, combined with a clutch jumper, left him in rarefied air.
There’s only two Celtics who compare as scorers, and even accepting that Havlicek and Bird played in different eras, Pierce’s game still stands out for its diversity. Havlicek played before 3-pointers, and even when Bird was considered the best long-range shooter in the league, the 3 wasn’t the weapon that it is today.
Pierce may not be the best player in Celtics history, but the fact that he’s even in the conversation for best all-around scorer speaks volumes. His Celtics tenure hit some rocky patches — like when he regrettably left the floor in 2005 after being eliminated by the Pacers with gauze wrapped around his head — but he remained committed to returning the Green to glory, a promise he eventually delivered.
He was an unforgettable talent, which is why Sunday’s farewell will be a memorable one.