By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports hub
BOSTON (CBS) — There was a time when I wasn’t much of a Paul Pierce fan.
In hindsight, it wasn’t so much the player as the situation. Drafted into the league by the used car salesman who bumped Red Auerbach out of the corner office, Pierce first toiled as a palate cleanser to Antoine Walker’s trigger-happy antics. He later came into his own as the focal point of Jim O’Brien’s coloring book offense and was named team captain, probably because he was the only good player the Celtics had left. For most of the first decade of Pierce’s career, I simply wasn’t buying what the team was selling. Pierce could drop 30, jump on tables and trash talk Al Harrington all he wanted; the Celtics weren’t going anywhere in my mind, and that only magnified the on-court failings of the player known as “The Truth.”
To say I was happy to eat crow would be an understatement.
Pierce proved to be more than just the nominal leader of the 2008 NBA champions. Surrounded by capable personnel, he became the consummate teammate, sacrificing box score lines in the interest of building the perfect beast. The Celtics won a title, challenged for another, then became the ultimate “get off my lawn” team late in his Boston run. As much of a codger as Kevin Garnett was in the paint, Pierce was the crustiest: a swingman taking on guys seemingly half his age and twice as fast, overcoming mid-30’s inertia with an assortment of jab steps, fakes, and unorthodox jumpers that sometimes looked like Popeye winding up to sock Bluto.
Joni Mitchell never lies, and you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I’ve spent the last four years watching Pierce from afar, hitting dagger threes in Brooklyn and D.C., tweeting emojis for the Clippers. What I’ve missed the most is the Pierce swagger, always dialed up to 11, a perfect fit for the second act of an illustrious career, as awkward as it sometimes was in the early going.
Pierce’s rookie exploits (16.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.4 APG) took shape under the lengthy shadow of the 1998-99 NBA lockout. It was a forgettable 50-game campaign capped by the Spurs winning their first championship over the Knicks, an eighth seed that averaged 85 points per game in the playoffs. For their part, the Celtics slogged to a 19-31 mark, their big move the acquisition of “The Ukraine Train” Vitaly Potapenko from Cleveland. The Cavs turned the pick they received into Andre Miller.
After the season, Boston unloaded the No. 6 pick from two years earlier, Ron Mercer, in a trade that centered on Danny Fortson, who started all of five games in green. As Pierce’s numbers exploded to NBA All-Star levels, the wheels continued to spin on a clown car fueled by Pitino’s ego.
Jim O’Brien succeeded Pitino on the bench and employed the only strategy he found acceptable for a team with two competent scorers: sucking the fun out of basketball by chucking up a ridiculous number of threes. The smoke and mirrors Celtics found themselves up 2-1 on the Nets in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, but they lost that series and O’Brien, too, made an exit following two and a half seasons of eroding results.
Those were the early days of NBA League Pass. Where previously fans were limited to watching their home teams and whoever popped up on nationally televised broadcasts, now they could watch any team they wanted. And pretty much everybody was more appealing than the bombs-away Celtics.
Sure, I got a kick out of the Adventures of Ricky Davis and the nostalgic re-acquisition of Walker for the 2004-05 stretch run, but those were blips on the radar of a multi-year period where it seemed like the majority of Celtics possessions ended with Pierce holding the rock at the top of the key and attempting a ridiculous heave. The 2005 season itself ended with a bizarre thud as an indignant Pierce was ejected from Game 6 of the team’s first round series with the Pacers (Jamaal Tinsley was the worst) and donned some kind of makeshift neckbrace at the postgame press conference.
The summer of 2007 changed things: most noticeably, the situation. But also, the captain.
Winning is like an elixir. The 2007-08 Celtics did a lot of it; it was their mission from the start. And if you didn’t think Pierce was a winner, the 2008 playoffs probably spun you around. His dogged determination, famously dueling reigning MVP LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semis. His downright throttling of the Lakers in the Finals en route to MVP honors for that series. The woofing, the preening, the apparent Vitamin D deficiency that demanded the spotlight at all times. He was out there to be the best. And that spring, there was little argument.
Over time, my fondness for The Truth only increased as he (and Garnett) became a monument in high tops to the Old NBA. The Celtics had an inspiring six-year run, and even if injuries and age prevented them from hoisting another trophy, Pierce displayed his savvy and guile on a nightly basis. He missed just 25 regular season games during this stretch, gamely leading the charge with teammates breaking down all around him. He took great pleasure in engaging younger, quicker scorers in slugfests in which he would eventually prevail, honeyfuggling defenders with herky-jerky dribble drives and creating just enough space to launch game-winning jumper after game-winning jumper. Give him an inch; Pierce took a mile. The shot over LeBron in Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals was a case study.
His swan song in Boston? A Boston loss to a highly irritating Knicks team in the 2013 playoffs. Yeah, losing’s bad, but we’ll always remember that unfathomable 19-0 fourth quarter run in Game 6, the Garden coming unglued as the Celtics battled back from a 25-point deficit. Pierce was everywhere: an offensive board, an assist, a three, a steal, and finally the and-one. Shades of Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, only this time, Pierce’s young legs were now those of a veteran with little left to prove. He still went down swinging, anyway.
He left that summer in Danny Ainge’s famous Brooklyn swap, and I’ve spent the last four seasons using League Pass to follow Paul Pierce.
On Monday night, with just 20 regular season games remaining in what has become a 19-year Hall of Fame career, The Truth suits up for the final time against the Celtics, the organization that defines him, and one he took to new heights with his hustle, team play, and a penchant for the biggest of moments. I’ll be on the other side of the TV, as I was Super Bowl Sunday watching Pierce rattle home a late three in his final visit to the Garden. And if it gets dusty in my living room again, so be it.
Sean Sylver is a contributor to CBSBostonSports.com who can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @sylverfox25.