Not what we were expecting. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Overall, it's tough not to be satisfied with Paul Pierce's production in these most recent playoffs. He averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, while shooting 39.2 percent from three-point nation, and 82.3 percent from the free throw line. The only real blip on the statistical radar was his less than desirable 43.7 field goal percentage over the course of the 24-game period.
Largely due to his stellar supporting cast, these playoffs were all about the matchups for Pierce, as the burden of being the team's leading scorer was not placed on his shoulders during every single series. When the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic failed to present a worthy suitor on the defensive end to counteract Pierce, he willfully exerted himself offensively, by posting scoring averages of 19.6 points against the Heat and 24.3 points against the Magic.
But, in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers and in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Pierce had to deal with LeBron James and Ron Artest, respectively, and his emphasis on offense changed somewhat. He averaged a mere 13.5 points against the Cavaliers, when his main priority was trying to contain James. Appropriately, the scoring load in that series was handled by Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Against the Lakers, Pierce still managed an above average 21.0 points per game, but they didn't come easily, as LA's defense (and Artest's in particular), caused Pierce to shoot a mere 43.8 percent from the field over the course of the series.
Yet as the playoffs rolled along, a specific trend began to develop with Pierce. He began to put forth some of his best efforts in some of the most vital games of each series - games that gave the Celtics a decisive edge in the series, or games that closed out (or would have closed out) an opponent completely. This rather appealing habit of his continued all the way through the NBA Finals...Until Game 7.
Given the fact that the Celtics went on vanquish the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, and nearly the Los Angeles Lakers, in retrospect, it was somewhat foolish for some to doubt their ability to advance past the Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs. This was the first clear-cut example of the Celtics boasting too many offensive weapons for its opponent to effectively combat, as the Celtics held the matchup advantages at the majority of the positions on the floor. It wasn't just Pierce who had the edge over his defender, Quentin Richardson, and Richardson's relief, Dorrell Wright. So, while Rondo, and Allen, and Garnett all put forth superior efforts over the course of the series, it was only a matter of time before Pierce put forth one of his own.
That effort came in Game 3, with the Celtics boasting a 2-0 series lead. After two fairly easy victories in Boston, Miami kept Game 3 close down the stretch, only to have Pierce cap off his stunning 32-point performance (11-23 shooting) with the game-winning jump shot over Wright's outstretched palm as time expired. He scored 22 of those 32 in the second half, including the final nine points of the third quarter for Boston, as the C's put a stranglehold on that series and forced Miami into a nearly insurmountable 3-0 hole.
Up next came Cleveland, when Pierce's offense went into hibernation for the first four games. Against James and co., the C's managed to split the first four games, despite Pierce putting in a meager 11.75 points per game, largely due to the superior play of Rondo, Allen, and Garnett, who all exploited their own individual matchups. But even as Pierce struggled to help his team on offense, there was still the expectation that he would break out of his scoring slump and help win a game for Boston. The general consensus was that he needed to be more aggressive, flat out, and he fit that bill in a crucial Game 5 that saw the Celtics take a critical 3-2 series lead with Game 6 slated for the TD Garden. Pierce nearly garnered a triple-double in Game 5, as he put up a series-high 21 points to go along with 11 rebounds and seven assists. He took 21 shots - his highest total of the series, and set an aggressive tone early by burying jump shots over James and attacking the rim. He scored 11 of those 21 in the second half, with six coming in a third frame that saw Boston take a 50-44 halftime lead and convert it into an 80-63 advantage with 12 minutes remaining.
Many people did not foresee the Celtics having a chance to sweep the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. But it became much more plausible once Boston took a commanding 3-0 series lead with Game 4 taking place in Boston. With a sweep on the line, Pierce took charge, as he shot 11-25 from the floor and 10-13 from the free throw line en route to 32 points to go along with 11 rebounds. Unfortunately, 25 of Pierce's 32 came over the course of the first three quarters, and he and the Celtics stumbled late. After tying the game at 86 with 1:16 to play on an aggressive drive to the hoop and the ensuing free throw off the called foul, Pierce failed to get a shot off at the buzzer with a chance to win the game, and he sputtered in overtime, clearly exhausted. He front-rimmed two three-pointers in the closing seconds, capping off a disappointing 0-6 performance from the nation. Still, without Pierce's efforts, the Celtics might not have even sniffed overtime and a legitimate chance to sweep Orlando.
In the end, it took six games for the Celtics to oust the Magic, as Orlando fought back valiantly from it's 0-3 series deficit. In the clinching Game 6, Pierce put forth perhaps his best effort of the entire postseason. Back at home after a frustrating Game 5 loss, with a shot at another championship hanging in the balance, Pierce shot 9-15 from the field, 4-5 from three-point nation, and 9-10 from the free throw line on his way to an extremely efficient 31 points. He added 13 rebounds and five assists for good measure, and turned the ball over just twice, as the Celtics ended Orlando's comeback hopes with a 96-84 victory. 11 of his 31 came in the third quarter, when the Celtics increased a 55-42 halftime lead into an 82-61 advantage heading into the final frame.
Much like the Cleveland series, the NBA Finals were deadlocked at two games apiece going into Game 5. Up until that point, Pierce's offense was modest against Artest and co., as he posted a scoring average of 17.0 points per game through the first four. But Boston's final home game of the season brought out a retro performance from Pierce, who scored a series-high 27 points on 12-21 shooting. Suddenly, the isolation plays were working. Suddenly, Artest looked like just another below-average defender who Pierce just waved at and scored at will on. Pierce also took advantage of the pick-and-roll plays involving Garnett, which the Lakers promptly switched on, leaving a helpless Gasol left to deal with a determined Pierce. We'll always remember Pierce ripping that rebound away from Kobe Bryant with less than a minute left, and etched even more permanently in our minds is the Garnett inbounds pass that Pierce caught over Derek Fisher and relayed to a cutting Rondo for an 89-82 with 35 ticks left. With Games 6 and 7 slotted for LA, the Celtics virtually had to win Game 5, and Pierce, appropriately, was the key cog in the victory.
The playoff magic, however, ended there. Pierce and co. stunk up the joint in Game 6, leaving the fate of the championship in the hands of a decisive, winner-take-all Game 7. As much as people wanted to talk about Kobe asserting himself in Game 7 in a manner the Celtics would be unable to contain, I was ready for Pierce to exert his own will on the contest, based on the importance of it, and the body of work mentioned above. Based on everything we had seen over the course of the playoffs, and Pierce's knack for performing at the most crucial times, it seemed like a sure thing he would play the role of hero in Game 7. Alas, that final game taught us that not everything can be so readily predicted, as Kobe struggled and needed his teammates to take charge in the victory.
Pierce also stumbled, and it became clear midway through that a performance similar to that of Game 5 was not in the cards. Artest was back to his stone-wall self, and was smothering Pierce in the isolation situations, and LA's defense as a whole, particularly in pick-and-roll situations was overwhelming, and Pierce had little to no room to effectively operate on either wing. He got to the free throw line just four times through the first three quarters, but midway through the fourth we wanted to see that number double, or even triple, as the game was suddenly being called extremely tight, and Pierce would have benefited from a flurry of aggressive drives in an attempt to draw contact, as opposed to the fading jump shots over an upstart Artest that he settled for. While 18 points and 10 rebounds is nothing to snuff at, Pierce shot just 5-15 from the field, and there was no sense that he had control of the game the way he did so many others in the weeks prior. With he and his teammates in such a funk offensively halfway through the final frame, there was little hope that he would suddenly shed his offensive woes and carry his team down the stretch. He scored just four points in the fourth quarter, during a time when his team was in desperate need of points in the midst of an overbearing LA scoring run.
Looking back, it's not a matter of losing faith in Pierce. Not at all. He put forth too many spectacular performances over the course of the postseason for even a measure of doubt to creep into the equation. I suppose it's the fact that, given his clutch nature and tendency to perform in important games, Game 7 was an unfortunate smudge on the screen at the worst possible time. Given all that he had done over the course of the playoffs, Game 7 didn't unfold the way it should have. It was an improper conclusion to what should have gone down as a historic string of clutch performances in the midst of an improbable championship run for his squad. But now, in an unfitting twist, the pundits will look back and harp on Game 7, and will not award Pierce the appropriate credit for all that he did for the Celtics in the playoffs leading up to it.