- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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In last season's dramatic Game 7 between Cleveland and Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Paul Pierce made a play that basically went unnoticed in the game's recap. It was lost in a sea of points (41 for Pierce, 45 for LeBron James) and appears in the official play-by-play as "NBA: Jump ball: James Posey vs. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Paul Pierce gains possession)."
With one minute left in the game and Boston hanging on to a three-point lead, Pierce lined up next to James on the jump ball. There was an obvious spot between James and Sasha Pavlovic for the taller Ilgauskas to tip the ball. And everyone on the court knew it. It would come down to who wanted it more.
Garnett occupied Pavlovic as the ball came right to the expected spot, a couple feet away from LeBron, who only had to make a few slides to gain possession. However, as soon as the ball was tossed up, Pierce cut James off and gained an advantage. The ball squirted away with both stars giving chase, and it was Pierce who had the presence of mind to dive on the ball and call a timeout.
It was a gritty play, one that required toughness, anticipation and being totally in the moment. It was the kind of play that does not define a player, but makes one. For Pierce, from that moment forward he was the NBA's best player in the playoffs.
This season, Pierce has picked up right where he left off. He scored 27 points against the Cavs in the Celtics' opener and helped limit LeBron to 22 points on 21 shots. He was the game's best player that night, attacking James from the start with a hard-charging dunk for his team's first points of the season. And following that up with a change-of-pace, baseline-dribble attack, banging LeBron down and then hitting him with a reverse. It was an old man's bucket, coming after a young man's dunk.
It set the tone for who Pierce is going to be this season: Everyman. Points, boards, defense, intangibles. He no longer seems worried about style. Instead, he is locked in on the substance of his team's performance, yet is still comfortable being the man when the matchup calls for it.
Against Toronto on Nov. 10, Pierce struggled in the first half, hitting just 2-of-10 shots, and Boston trailed by 15 in the third quarter. But then he took over, hitting 8 of his last 12 shots and finishing with 36 points. He scored 22 in the fourth quarter alone to keep the Celtics undefeated.
Two nights later, in a matchup with then-undefeated Atlanta, emotions ran high thanks not only to the two teams' records but also because of their seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs the previous April. Again, Pierce played the role of MVP, scoring 34 points, playing great defense and hitting the game-winning jumper with half a second left in the game.
And then on Dec. 1, in a battle with Orlando, Pierce broke open a two-point game at halftime with 17 third-quarter points en route to a team-high 24 and another Celtics win over a fellow East contender.
What I like best about what Pierce did in those four games is this: He attempted 48 free throws on 68 shots. And for the season, he's at 7.8 attempts on just 13 shot attempts per game, only the third time in his career that he's had that high a ratio of free throws to field goals. As players advance in years on the downside of their careers, we expect them to shoot fewer free throws, not more. This speaks to the lesson he learned on that jump ball, that he can impose his will on a game without feeling hot with his shot; they are two separate entities.
And that's what I'm seeing in games -- Pierce imposing his will, when needed, by attacking the rim and not just settling for his jumper. It appears he has trimmed down some from years past (always a great idea for a wing player over 30 years old), enabling him to still have some quickness and lift attacking the rim. He's as crafty as ever, changing speeds and driving angles to create opportunities for himself, and still has the moxie to use his body to gain leverage down under.
To be sure, he has not been shooting and finishing as accurately this season as he has in past seasons. His player efficiency rating of 16.58 (career low) and his true shooting percentage of 55.7 percent (lowest since 2003-04) are evidence of that. He may still be adjusting to carrying less weight -- it takes time to learn how to absorb contact inside and still maintain his balance to finish.
He's also not always locking in on his shot, especially in games where it's clear that Boston has an easy road to victory. With All-Star caliber teammates like Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and now Rajon Rondo, Pierce does not have to don his superhero cape nearly as often as he did years ago. He still can when the Celtics need him to, but he's also making things easier for his teammates, especially Allen and Rondo.
When defended by smaller guys, PP likes to go right inside, instead of proving he can out-shake a smaller man with his perimeter game. That's the right attitude to have, to punish a team that sends a smaller guy to him. It's partly a veteran's understanding, taking advantage of something every chance he gets (as opposed to missing opportunities), but it's also the product of his new mindset.
A player who has learned to impose his will on a game without relying purely on scoring must be a factor on defense. And Pierce is still totally bought in on this end. Watch him crowd a quicker player on the perimeter, knowing he'll get beat but forcing him to a weaker spot on the floor. Watch him hustle to close out a shooter, even risking fouling the jump shooter on occasion (which used to be a sin) to better contest the shooter. Watch him use his body to muscle up a post player trying to get a good position on the blocks.
For the Celtics to play the kind of defense they do each night, messages must be sent. They can't expect to defend important positions on the floor just by using hustle and athleticism. Brute physicality needs to be part of the equation. And Pierce is willing to be part of that formula, too. Only Kendrick Perkins, who's long and strong, commits more fouls than Pierce. Pierce is fouling 2.8 times per game, more than he has in years.
While Pierce still has worlds of talent, it's his toughness that jumps out at me now. And his desire to win, without a care as to how it happens. This from the player who experts thought was the most selfish player in the 2002 World Championship debacle. The same guy who was a part of the Celtics' devastating loss against Indiana in the 2005 playoffs. And the same guy whom I doubt anyone would think "tough guy" if asked to describe him. But that's who he is now. And as a result, the Celtics are simply out-toughing the league again this year, both mentally and physically.
Sure, there are more glamorous small forwards in the league. There are scorers with great technique like Caron Butler and Carmelo Anthony. And there are newcomers like Danny Granger, Kevin Durant and Rudy Gay. But if I had to choose one small forward to help my team win a series, besides LeBron, I'd go with the guy who doesn't need to carry the team with his shooting talent alone, but who can impact it with his will and his toughness.
And that's the Truth.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European League and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.