Whether it's because of his extended tenure with the team, or his status as captain, or his inconsistency scoring the ball this season despite possessing an obvious talent for doing so (largely due to injury), it seems like Paul Pierce's game has been under a microscope for nearly the entire season.
The second Pierce hits a rough patch, the critics bust out of their caves and proclaim he's too far over the hill to get the job done anymore, particularly in isolation (ISO) situations. The isolation talk really heated up after his failed attempt at the buzzer at the end of regulation in an overtime loss to the Houston Rockets back on April 2. And since he failed to play up to his usual standards in three of his next four games, it was fair to label Pierce as going through a "rough stretch". Which is the main reason why Doc Rivers decided to play him last night against the Milwaukee Bucks, as opposed to resting him like he did Kevin Garnett. He wanted Pierce to try and establish some sort of offensive rhythm with the playoffs just a week away, and after hitting 10 of his 17 shot attempts, including seven of eight in the second half, and finishing with 24 points, it's fair to say Pierce did that last night.
What's interesting is that Pierce's scoring in the second half came primarily in ISO situations against Jerry Stackhouse. Throughout much of the first half, when Pierce was driving to the hoop, the Bucks collapsed on him, forcing him to shoot over two or three guys at a time. So, being the astute basketball player he is, Pierce realized a short, mid-range/in-between game would serve him much better in the second half.
The most important thing about Pierce's ISO shots last night were that pretty much all of them - with the clear exception being the jumper in Stackhouse's face in the left corner with 3:33 to play - came within 15-18 feet of the rim, as opposed to 18+ feet from the basket. If you were to draw an arc similar to the three-point line extending from both sides of the free throw line to the baseline, the majority of Pierce's shots were taken around, or just outside of, that arc. And don't discredit Stackhouse too much. If you check out a few of those replays, he played Pierce's shots as well as anyone could really hope to play them. Pierce's great offense just beat Stackhouse's respectable defense.
So, keeping that 15-18 foot range in mind, let's fly back in time to the Houston game that everyone got so upset about. Pierce came very close to betraying the 15-18 foot range, and on top of that, he was basically forced into a much more difficult shot compared to the ones he took last night. Against Houston, not only did Pierce initiate his move too late (only four seconds were left when he got going), but he crossed over on Chuck Hayes to the left wing, and when Chase Budinger juked towards him in mock help defense, Pierce was forced to spin back to his right and launch into the air for the shot from about 19 or 20 feet before his shoulders were even square with the basket. So, he had to worry about squaring himself up first in mid-air before he could even get off a half decent shot at the rim at a difficult distance from the hoop.
The spinning fade away is easily a much tougher shot than Pierce's patented one or two dribbles and a step-back fade away, which was what he was employing against the Bucks last night. Two of his most important buckets in the fourth quarter came on his classic dribble, dribble, step back combo. One began on the left wing going right with 4:56 left in the fourth, and the other on the right wing going left with 4:22 left. There was no spinning and fading, only fading off the dribble, which Pierce is much more adept at.
The problem with the Houston game was Pierce seemed more worried about the clock than he did about actually scoring the basketball. His main mistake, as previously mentioned, was waiting far too long to initiate his move towards the basket. Had he started going with six or seven seconds left, he most likely could have gotten one or two dribbles closer to the rim, which could have easily opened up a legitimate lane to the hoop, or at the bare minimum, some more space for him to fade away from a closer distance to the basket (somewhere in the 15-18 foot range). Thinking back, it wouldn't surprise me if Pierce didn't want to give Aaron Brooks any time on the clock, considering he had just buried an incredibly difficult three-point shot with to tie the game mere seconds earlier. He wanted the buzzer to sound as his shot was falling through the net. The only problem was, he made the shot too difficult for himself and the ball drew iron, not net. This game was not a glaring example of Pierce's sudden inability to create for himself in ISO situations. It was merely a shot that Pierce made more difficult than it had to be with little time left on the clock.
On top of that, if it was clear in the huddle that the shot would be Pierce's, why was Michael Finley stationed above the three-point line on the left wing? His presence there kept Budinger in the picture, which impacted Pierce's attempt at the basket. Had the Celtics cleared the side completely for Pierce, he probably would have had a better chance at either driving to the basket in an attempt to draw a foul, or, at the very worst, a closer step-back jumper somewhere around the paint.
It's highly likely that Pierce's ISO game will be needed at some point during the playoffs. If the Celtics find themselves in a 2008 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Game 7 situation where Pierce is asked to throw the team on his back, he's going to need to be able to score at will. And after watching him dismantle Milwaukee last night, it seems quite apparent that he needs to keep most of his ISO plays within that 15-18 foot range. It's typically been his bread and butter zone in the past, and the misses seem to come when he steps out of it, or makes the shots themselves more difficult, and as a result, the critics look to feast. But please, find me a critic today who says Paul Pierce can't still score in ISO situations. I'll bet next to anything they've already crawled back into their caves.