Commentary

Paul Pierce still pilots Celts in clutch

Updated: November 24, 2012, 2:41 AM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The coach was shockingly candid in his comments; a public attempt, perhaps, to temper the player's expectations.

When Doc Rivers was asked about Paul Pierce, he explained the future Hall of Famer could no longer create the same separation that once made him such a feared scorer, that what little athleticism he may have possessed was waning. The inference was that while the Boston Celtics would continue to get him the ball, it would have to be in a different manner.

His minutes would be monitored and his game would be modified. The Celtics would run more pin-down screens for him. They would work to create baskets for him in transition, and stray from the isolation plays that were both Pierce's triumphant trademark and, occasionally, his most visible blemish.

The captain said very little about any of this. He was, after all, 35 years old, an All-Star strolling down the other side of the mountaintop, a player who could well have been dealt for future prospects had Kevin Garnett decided to retire last summer. There was even some brief discussion about bringing him off the bench.

[+] Enlarge Paul Pierce
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty ImagesPaul Pierce might not jump as high or move as quick as he once did, but the captain was as good as ever during crunch time, willing the Celtics to victory.

Pierce said all the right things. It was Rajon Rondo's team, he declared, and Jeff Green would provide him with precious minutes of rest, Pierce assured the masses. He was happy to fulfill whatever role the Celtics asked.

All true. But c'mon now, when the game was on the line Friday night, when the ball was in his hands, when the Oklahoma City Thunder and its MVP candidate Kevin Durant were roaming the parquet in search of its ninth win in 10 tries, did you honestly think Paul Pierce would suggest that someone else take the big shot?

No. That's what he does.

Still.

Until further notice.

Pierce pumped in a team-high 27 points to lead the Celtics past Oklahoma City 108-100, their most significant victory of this version of the quest for Banner 18.

It has been an uneven start to the Celtics' season. There are so many new faces, and so many new roles for the old vets. The litany of team concerns included indifferent defense, appalling rebounding, disjointed rotations.

After Rivers pointedly expressed his disappointment in the team's effort at a pregame shootaround, Pierce promised to make a difference.

He submitted a forgettable first half against the younger, quicker, more agile Thunder. But, when the third quarter started, the captain stamped his imprint on the game, ripping off seven straight points (a fallaway, a drive to the hole and a 3-pointer) to push Boston's lead to 8.

It was one of those stream-of-consciousness offensive explosions that provided a flashback for Kendrick Perkins, the former Celtics center who now sets bruising screens for Oklahoma City.

"Seen it before," Perkins said. "Hundreds of times. Paul can score. He'll always be able to score."

In the final quarter, Pierce strung together another 3-pointer, a pair of free throws off an acrobatic spin move, then absolutely schooled the overmatched Kevin Martin to push the Celtics in front 88-76. It was the kind of matchup Boston's coaching staff is working hard to unearth so Pierce can exploit smaller defenders.

Of course, at various points of the night, he also scored on Durant, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. That, say his teammates, is what they call his equal-opportunity swagger.

So many of his offensive possessions seemed dubious at first blush. As he hoisted his shot, you felt certain it would be swatted away, or his drives rejected, or his pull-up would clang short. With no lift and no length, yet enough guile to fill the Garden, The Truth still knows his way around the basket.

"Pierce is one of the more crafty guys in this league," Thunder coach Scotty Brooks said. "You don't think he can get around you, but he gets around you. You don't think he can get the shot off, but he gets it off."

Sometimes, the selection is harrowing, one of those "Oh God, don't shoot it from there" offerings that make coaches blanch -- until it goes in.

And, when it doesn't, Rivers merely swallows hard, claps his hands and understands this is the road you walk when you put your faith in a professional scorer.

"He's a shotmaker," Rivers shrugged.

The Celtics needed a legitimate victory over an actual contender, not Toronto or Washington without John Wall. The dispiriting loss to San Antonio two nights earlier was still eating away at Pierce, and he called upon his teammates to provide some consistency and some passion.

"We've been up and down for most of the season," Pierce said. "This was a gut-check type of win, a look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror type of game."

And what did The Truth see when he gazed at his reflection? Although he has led the team in scoring for much of this young season, he was shooting 41.7 percent coming into this game, well below his career average. Rivers is right -- players are having better success thwarting Pierce in those mano-a-mano duels that he once thrived on.

The captain loves to go for the big kill, and sometimes that leads him into that isolation netherland that can choke the life out of Boston's offensive rhythm.

He nearly cost the Celtics in the final three minutes, when, his team up 10, he caught the ball on the right wing and launched a 3-pointer just five seconds into the possession. His feet were so far behind the line, it should have counted as four. Had it fallen, it could well have been the definitive dagger to finish OKC off.

But the shot bounced away, and that miss was quickly converted into a Kevin Durant 3-pointer on the other end.

"I didn't mind that he took the shot so much," Rivers said. "It was just too far out."

On the very next possession, Pierce was whistled for an offensive foul, then hacked Durant and sent him to the line for two. Suddenly, it was a five-point game.

Suddenly, you weren't sure you wanted Pierce to have the ball anymore.

"I don't mind Paul shooting it," Rivers explained, "but I don't want him dancing too much with the ball. I thought that's what he did in the fourth quarter."

In spite of his big numbers, Pierce did not garner headlines on this night. The spotlight was squarely on Jeff Green, the former Thunder player who scored 17 in his first appearance against his former team.

The captain was somewhat of a footnote, once again the top scorer on a team that continues to search for its identity. Friday's win was a step in the right direction, but the Celtics have miles to go.

When Pierce was told that Brooks had termed him crafty, he smiled knowingly. Crafty is one of those code words for "old."

"I've been doing this a long time," Pierce said. "I've never been the most athletic guy, but I've used my footwork and hesitation moves and my pump fakes really well through the years over younger, quicker guys."

The younger, quicker guys left Boston disappointed on Friday. The older, slower guy shot 8-of-16 from the floor, 7-of-7 from the line, and 4-of-6 from the 3-point arc.

The captain also had five turnovers. It's just not going to be as pretty as the days of playoff MVP trophies and championship banners. Paul Pierce is showing his age, but that doesn't mean he'll ever turn down the biggest shot in the biggest game.

Still.

That is, until further notice.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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