- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON -- As Shaquille O'Neal once noted, "If you don't have dogs, forget about digging up any rings."
With some contending NBA teams, it's easy to identify the "alpha dog" -- that dominant player who takes over basketball games and willingly steps up to take the big shot, makes the big play, delivers the big speech (or impassioned tongue lashing) when his team needs it most. Kobe Bryant will do that for the Los Angeles Lakers and Derrick Rose appears poised to accomplish the same for the Chicago Bulls.
But who qualifies as Top Dog for the Boston Celtics? It has been a spirited debate since the Big Three was formed in August 2007. Initial skeptics of the trades that brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join resident superstar Paul Pierce argued that while all three players were elite future Hall of Famers, they were all 1A players instead of that flat-out No. 1 alpha dog.
Those "1A" dogs still managed to have their day in 2008, when they beat the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA championship. KG was credited with transforming the culture in Boston by providing leadership, accountability and uncommon intensity en route to prioritizing defense as the cornerstone of the team's mantra.
Yet it was Pierce who skipped off with the Finals MVP hardware by averaging 21.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds against the Lakers. Pierce not only hit some timely 3-pointers and distributed the ball at key junctures, he also played a major role in agitating Bryant on the defensive end, just as he had done previously to LeBron James. His memorable scoring duel with LeBron in Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals was on par with the classic shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 postseason.
Three years later, as the Celtics stumble into the playoffs, they find themselves in a familiar situation. Defensively they will turn to KG to energize them, and offensively they will rely on Pierce to generate points.
It's no secret whom Boston turns to when the clock is ticking down. The ball most often winds up in Pierce's hands because he is one of the few Celtics who can create his own shot. He came into the league with a shooter's mentality and will leave with the same reputation.
Asked if he could remember a time when he didn't want the ball with the game on the line, Pierce answered, "No, there's never been a time."
If everyone knows Pierce will shoot the ball in crunch time, do the Celtics become too predictable?
Since the Big Three joined forces in 2007, Pierce has taken 13 potential go-ahead field goals in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime in the regular season. He's converted just two of them.
Allen is 4-for-9 in the same situation; Garnett is 2-for-4. The rest of the Celtics: 1-for-11.
There have been nine occasions in the postseason during the Big Three era when a potential go-ahead field goal was needed in the final seconds of regulation or overtime.
They break down this way:
Somebody else: 1-for-4
So in his time with the Celtics, KG has not attempted a single shot in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime in a playoff game.
Seven seasons ago, Garnett was named the league's Most Valuable Player after a monster year in which he submitted 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and 5 assists a night. That season, KG averaged a career high 19.6 shots a game, but not without some serious cajoling from his coach, Flip Saunders.
"Kevin has the killer instinct on defense, but when it comes to offense, he wants to please," Saunders explained. "He wants to be perfect.
"Paul Pierce could care less if he's perfect. Just give him the ball. KG will never force the issue offensively -- Paul will. Every time."
Garnett shot 53 percent this season on 11.5 attempts a game. While no one expects him to hoist up nearly 20 shots a night, there are times when KG passes up high-percentage shots, failing to even look at the rim, choosing instead to keep the ball moving.
Garnett confirmed Wednesday night he does occasionally do just that -- but with a purpose.
"Basketball is so complex," Garnett explained. "I feel like if there has been no ball movement, which is very needed in the game, I'll sacrifice that elbow jumper that I know I can make nine out of 10 times to make the ball move. So when I tell you to move it, you can't say to me, 'Well, you're not moving it.'
"I told [Celtics coach Doc Rivers], 'I'm going to pass these next two shots up. I'm going to move this ball just so when we come back to the huddle I can say, "We need ball movement," and the guys won't look at me like I'm crazy.'"
Saunders says that during his MVP season, Garnett was the most accurate player in the NBA shooting from the elbow, but would still defer to teammates who were less talented offensively.
"Sometimes I used to take the blame," Saunders admitted. "If KG is open for a 10-footer and there's a guy open for a 5-footer, he'll give the other guy the ball.
"What I tried to tell him when we were in Minnesota was we might not want the guy who is open from 5 feet to end up with the ball. But it was hard to get on him too hard. You can't fault a guy for being unselfish."
KG acknowledges his coaches have long urged him to take a more proactive offensive role.
"Doc's been on my ass about it, Flip was always on my ass about it," he said. "I have no problem with shooting more. The question I always find myself asking, is, 'Will it be better for the team? Or am I shooting just to shoot?'"
When told his coaches want him to shoot more because he takes high-quality shots and his career shooting percentage is above 50 percent, KG shot back, "I don't play numbers. I hate it when coaches throw the numbers at me. You can be 100 percent, but it doesn't tell me if you've got guts or not, if you have heart or not, or if you're going to quit on me. I'm not into that.
"I guess I struggle with that because I'm a person who will give you my last. I'm a loyal individual and I wear my heart on my sleeve and what I like to say my greatest attribute is I can make the next person better. I believe that. I'm stating that. That's a fact.
"When you're a coach, and you're outside of who I am, you see a force that could be something different. I've never seen myself that way."
While Pierce has received numerous accolades for his offensive abilities, he also is often faulted for trying to play, as Rivers terms it, "hero ball" when the team's offense becomes stagnant. As the team faltered in the latter stages of Game 7 against the Lakers in last year's Finals, Pierce, who finished 5-for-15 from the floor, missed four of his five shots in the fourth quarter.
Those numbers can be attributed to a number of things, among them fatigue, effective pressure defense from the Lakers and questionable shot selection. When it was over, the same offensive initiative that Pierce exhibited in 2008 and earned him some coveted hardware left him open to criticism in 2010 when he came home empty-handed.
Perhaps that's why Pierce appeared a tad sensitive when queried about his role as the offensive alpha dog late last week.
"Hey, I'm just a piece," Pierce said. "Like an arm or a leg or an eyeball."
He paused momentarily while his comments were met with the proper measure of skepticism.
"But I'm an important piece," he finally added.
The collapse of Boston's offensive schemes remains the No. 1 concern (besides health) as the Celtics prepare for their playoff series with the New York Knicks. The Celtics have dealt with myriad personnel changes, the inability of O'Neal to stay on the floor, the uneven play of Rajon Rondo and the controversial decision to deal Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline.
Through all that, Pierce concluded the regular season as the team's leading scorer for the 11th consecutive year. He posted a career-high field goal percentage (.497), improving upon his previous high (.472) of one season ago. He also shot a career-high 86 percent from the line, improving upon the .852 mark he set in 2009-10. Add a career best in turnovers (2.14 a game) and it's clear as Pierce gets older, he's also becoming more efficient.
"I changed the way I did things [a few years ago]," Pierce said. "I've worked extremely hard to get myself in the kind of condition where making plays late in the game is second nature."
Pierce's offensive arsenal -- scoring off the dribble, 3-point range, post-up moves, drives to the basket -- have made him one of more multidimensional scorers in the league. Asked to pick his favorite way to beat teams, Pierce offered, "Probably getting fouled. I like contact. There's nothing better than an 'and-one.'
"When I go to the line a lot, I feel like I'm having a major impact on the game. Not only am I scoring points, I'm affecting the other team. It's draining to keep playing someone who draws contact every time down the floor. It also gets you in foul trouble.
"If I help our team get into the bonus early in the game, then I know I'm doing something."
Garnett does not have to rationalize his résumé for anyone, but if he took a more aggressive approach to his offensive game, it could benefit Pierce and the Celtics. Likewise, it might behoove Boston to call Allen's number curling off a screen at crunch time.
In the meantime, the mysterious malaise that has enveloped Rondo for parts of this season leaves the forecast murky regarding the point guard's mindset. Teams continue to dare him to shoot, and his subpar free throw numbers appear to have caused him to refrain from attacking the rim the way he did last season.
One thing Rondo hasn't forgotten: When it matters, he knows which one of his dogs will be barking for the ball. It's Pierce.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.