Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The difference a Pierce makes in Brooklyn
By Mike Mazzeo
When you think about the Paul Pierce era in Brooklyn, you think about emotion.
|In the span of a year, Paul Pierce helped revive a franchise that had meddled in mediocrity.|
You think about the stunned look Pierce wore on his face during a news conference on July 18, 2013, at Barclays Center, still struggling to come to the realization that he had been traded from Boston, the place he had spent the first 15 seasons of his future Hall of Fame career.
You think about Pierce fighting back tears the night he returned to TD Garden for the first time as a visitor on Jan. 26, 2014, the night he desperately needed in order to move on and be able to embrace his new home.
You think about Pierce screaming “That’s why they got me here!” after sticking the dagger in Toronto on April 19, 2014, silencing the raucous crowd at Air Canada Center and enabling the Nets to steal Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Raptors.
Pierce may have spent only one season in Brooklyn, but he sure had his share of unforgettable moments with the Nets.
It all started on June 27, 2013, when Brooklyn and Boston agreed in principle on the blockbuster trade that sent Pierce and teammate Kevin Garnett from the Celtics to the Nets in exchange for five players, three future first-round draft picks (2014, 2016, 2018) and the right to swap first-rounders in 2017.
A little over two weeks later, the deal became official. “Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets,” owner Mikhail Prokhorov said.
“You spend your whole, almost half your life in one city, you get used to it,” Pierce told ESPNBoston.com’s Jackie MacMullan. “For you to make the move, it’s a huge adjustment. I mean, I know nothing else but Boston.”
It didn’t take long for the 10-time All-Star to endear himself to the Brooklyn faithful.
On Aug. 8, Pierce told Michael Kay on ESPN NewYork 98.7 FM: “I think the hate [for the Knicks] has grown a little. Everybody knows how much I disliked the Knicks when I was with the Celtics, but I think it’s grown to another level.
“I think it’s time for the Nets to start running this city.”
Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith returned fire. Pierce was just “bitter,” Smith said. Asked about his so-called “bitterness” on Sept. 19, Pierce responded, “Who? Who are we talking about right now.”
Pierce was brought in to provide leadership and change the culture in Brooklyn. He immediately raised the bar for the organization on media day, saying, “I came here to win a championship. I don’t even want to see a banner if we win the division. The expectations have grown.”
During a meaningless preseason game against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on Oct. 17, Pierce delivered a hard, playoff-style foul on LeBron James. “That’s going to be our identity. That’s a message to the league,” he said.
Pierce was used to being “the man” in Boston. That wasn’t the case in Brooklyn.
He struggled early on, trying to get used to playing a supporting role.
Then he got hurt, breaking a bone in his shooting hand on Nov. 29 in Houston. He was expected to miss 2-4 weeks. He missed just four games.
|Paul Pierce's protective glove helped his injury, not his jumper.|
But when he came back, first-year coach Jason Kidd decided to bring Pierce off the bench. Pierce had to wear a protective glove. It clearly affected his shot.
After going 0-for-3 from the field in his return on Dec. 10, Pierce joked: “I need to spend more time with it, get to know it, take it out to the movies, I don’t know. Have dinner with it. We can become more comfortable with each other and hit a home run together.”
Pierce stopped wearing the glove. His struggles, however, continued.
On Dec. 20, Pierce returned to the starting lineup, following a five-game stint as a reserve. He played well, but the Nets lost to lowly Philadelphia. “It’s not like we’re walking giants,” Pierce said. “We’re bottom-feeders right now, just like Philadelphia.”
That game, the Nets also lost Brook Lopez for the season.
Eight days later, following a 14-point loss to the Indiana Pacers, Pierce said: “We’re an easy team to guard right now.”
He never liked to sugarcoat anything.
The Nets hit rock-bottom in a New Year’s Eve blowout in San Antonio. Their record was 10-21. Kidd was on the hot seat.
“I listen to Jason. I do what he says. He’s our coach. I don’t get into all that,” Pierce said.
The calendar turned to 2014. Then Joe Johnson hit a buzzer-beater in Oklahoma City, and everything changed.
Kidd inserted Shaun Livingston into the starting lineup in place of Lopez, which allowed Pierce to move from small forward to power forward. He began to flourish, playing a vital role as the Nets turned their season around.
His return to Boston allowed him to officially close one chapter of his life and begin another. It wasn’t easy. Celtics fans showered him with applause. The organization showed a moving video tribute during the game.
|Paul Pierce turned the page on his celebrated Celtics legacy in his Boston return on Jan. 26.|
“I was telling Kevin, I was telling everybody -- this was the toughest game I ever had to play,” Pierce admitted when it was over. “It was tougher than any championship game. Tougher than any Game 7. This game was just so hard to really just focus and concentrate on what was at hand.”
He took off from there.
Pierce wasn’t the player he once was. Not by any means. But he still had something left in the tank. That much was certain. He played tough defense and made clutch shots.
On March 10, Pierce knocked down a huge 3-pointer in crunchtime, enabling Brooklyn to beat Toronto in one of the more fun regular-season games at Barclays Center.
“I think it’s just confidence. I've been that way since I was 2 years old, I remember my first game-winner at 8 months old, so it just grew from there,” Pierce joked.
The Nets had never wavered, even when their chips were down. Now they were surging toward the playoffs, unbeatable at home.
It was tougher than any championship game. Tougher than any Game 7.
-- Paul Pierce on return to Boston for the first time as a Net.
“We never had a locker room rift,” Pierce said. “There was never any whispering going on or one guy blaming another guy. And that’s the things that you see in losing locker rooms on young teams when things go wrong, and you never saw that here.”
Pierce averaged 12.6 points on 40.3 percent shooting -- including 34 percent from 3-point range -- in the 2013 portion of the schedule. Those numbers rose to 13.9 points on 47.7 percent shooting -- including 38.8 percent from 3-point range -- in 2014. And the Nets went from getting outscored by four points per 100 possessions with Pierce on the court in 2013 to outscoring their opponents by almost six points per 100 possessions with Pierce on the court in 2014.
The Nets, who went 34-17 in 2014, drew the Raptors in the first round.
|Paul Pierce's game-saving block on Kyle Lowry sealed the Nets' 4-3 series win in Toronto.|
Going into the series, a Toronto tabloid put Pierce on its back page, accompanied by the word “Dinosaur.” In Game 1, however, Pierce, 36, had the last laugh, scoring nine straight points down the stretch, as the Nets grabbed a 1-0 series lead. “Well, I don’t remember if I ever played [in a playoff game without the shot clock], since I’m a dinosaur,” Pierce said with a smirk. “It’s been so long.”
Three days later, Pierce was asked about his clutch shot-making once again: “I think it’s just in the DNA. You can’t buy it at Costco or Walgreens,” he replied.
The Nets and Raptors ended up going the distance. The final play in Game 7 proved to be the difference. Pierce made it.
Kyle Lowry drove the lane, but Pierce was able to block his shot before time expired, preserving Brooklyn’s 104-103 victory over Toronto.
Pierce savored the moment. “The Truth” had made his mark yet again.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Pierce said. “I saw him split the defenders, I saw him go up, I went with him. I got my hand on the ball -- game over.”
The Nets went 4-0 against the Heat in the regular season. But despite Pierce giving his teammates belief that their opponents were “not unbeatable,” Brooklyn was ousted by Miami in five games. Its season was over.
“When I get a chance to sit back and really get my thinking hat on, I will figure out what’s next,” Pierce said after the Nets were eliminated from postseason contention. “We came up short of our goal.
|Paul Pierce, left, likely played his last game with longtime teammate Kevin Garnett in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.|
“Although we didn’t accomplish our goals, you got to learn from it and see coming in next year, whether I will be here, or guys coming in, they got to understand that this is a precedent that we set. So going forward, for the organization, making the first round last year, making the second round, I think the organization is heading in the right direction.”
Pierce, who became an unrestricted free agent, left baggie day without speaking to the media, uncertain of what his future held.
He wasn’t heard from in the offseason until recently, when he made a remarkable run at the World Series of Poker Main Event, only to come up just short of the money.
On July 12, 2014, nearly a year after his trade to Brooklyn was made official, Pierce signed a two-year deal with the Washington Wizards for $11 million total with a second-year player option.
The Nets, sources said, decided to pass on Pierce. They felt they were set at power forward, and wanted to get younger. They were moving on. So was he.