The Boston Celtics are struggling. The Boston Celtics are old. The Boston Celtics are playing like the "pre-Big Three" Boston Celtics. They've lost five straight games for the first time since 2006-2007. The fan base is frantically searching for answers to the daunting question, "What's wrong with this team?" The final solution has not been provided, but as the season drags onward there have been glimpses of hope, moments of promise, and an ever-present truth. Paul Pierce is what will make or break this Boston team, it seems. As he continues to play better and better the Celtics will inevitably get stronger. How strong? I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Pierce entered this season injured. He sustained a heel bruise while working out this off-season, and it took him a bit longer than expected to recover. Pierce only managed to practice once during the entire training camp, and didn't even take the floor for Boston until the first home game against Detroit. By that point the C's had already started struggling. Granted, Boston eventually pulled to 4-4, but it's been downhill ever since.
During his time back on the floor it has become overly obvious that Pierce is both not in shape, and not completely healthy. Pierce had played a total of 292 (28.3 mpg average) minutes after Monday evening's game, and had pulled down 45 rebounds. He had tallied 32 assists, and 24 turnovers, seven steals, and two blocks. Most alarming out of those statistics are the turnovers, but please remember that Pierce took to the floor with one practice under his belt. He's essentially playing his way back to full health. In due time, those errors *should* take care of themselves.
Pierce is shooting 43-109 from the floor (39.4%) during his first nine games. Before his output against OKC he was averaging .88 points per play. Now, he is averaging .92 points per play. One of his most successful outputs (in plays ran five times or more) has been when he is coming off of the screen. Pierce is averaging 1.15 points per play off of the screen, and he is shooting 9-19 (47.4%) from the floor, 5-8 (62.5%) from three-point range. Pierce has been involved in spot-up opportunities during 32 plays, and he has shot only 8-26 (30.8%) from the floor. Paul has also been decently effective when he is involved in transition opportunities for Boston. He has been involved in 16 transition plays, and is averaging 1.19 points per play. Out of those 16 plays he has shot 5-12 (41.7%) from the field, 2-4 (50%) from beyond the arc. Through seven games Pierce was shooting 2-10 (20%) from 10-15 feet, and 3-20 (15%) from 16-23 feet. These numbers don't account for Pierce's decent performance against Indiana or the game on Monday against OKC, but they prove a pretty obvious point -- Pierce is not getting his shot in rhythm and in spaces where he can be effective (given the shape he is in at the point.) Instead, he is having to settle for contested jumpers and hasn't been able to get to the rim nearly as often as he would like to, probably. This has a direct correlation to the fact that he is not in shape yet, but it explains a good bit about his shooting woes so far this season. Yes, it is a small sample. But Pierce is obviously struggling to find his rhythm and get back into game shape. It isn't happening nearly as quickly as Doc and the rest of the coaching staff would have hoped, probably, and will definitely need to improve if the C's are to come anywhere close to the 8th playoff spot before the All-Star Break.
Defensively, Pierce has been decent. He has been the primary defender on 88 plays during his first nine games, and he is allowing .74 points per play. His match-ups are shooting 27-77 (35.1%) against him, 7-24 (29.2%) from deep. A potentially telling statistic, though, is the fact that out of the 11 times this season that Pierce has been the primary defender in isolation situations (a few times last night against Durant), he is committing a personal foul 36.4% of the time. Yes, this is a very small look at his numbers, but if those numbers remain consistent over time it will be interesting to see how the Celtics do as a result. Pierce has seemingly always been one of the C's top defenders in any situation since he has been in Boston. His struggles to stay in good position probably has a lot to do with his fitness and health, but it's at least something to note and keep an eye on.
While Pierce has been struggling during his first 8 games there have been moments where fans have been able to see the Boston Celtics they thought would be playing this season. You know, a team that plays sound defense, a team that capitalizes off of turnovers, and a team that will absolutely kill you coming off of screens. During those stretches it is Pierce (usually) who has the been the catalyst it seems. Rondo is the guy controlling the point, yes, but it's when Pierce is on the floor and getting his touches that the offense seems to run smoother than it was before, and the defense is far more sound than it ever was with Daniels, Pavlovic or anyone else playing (the SF position) with the first unit. As Pierce goes, so goes the Celtics. When he struggles it makes it awfully tough for Boston to maintain any type of consistency, especially on offense.
I don't think the Celtics are "done" yet. I don't think blowing it up is the right choice at this point. I think patience is key, though. After watching Pierce play for his first 9 games it is quite obvious that this team just wasn't ready (in my humble opinion) for the season to start. Pierce looks like he enjoyed his fair share of steak dinners during his time at Hotel de Lockout this summer, and not enough time running, lifting, and getting shots up. Then again, given the bleak outlook the lockout had at numerous times this off-season I can't say that I really blame him. Regardless, this is where the Celtics are at this point. Ray Allen is shooting well, Rajon Rondo is playing as well as he can with new teammates and rotations that seem to change every single game, and Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal have been holding their own as best as aging big-men can. Pierce is out of shape and not shooting well, but it will come. He has gotten considerably better as the season has progressed, and that is exactly what Doc Rivers was banking on when he decided to play him without conditioning work or practice. As long as the Celtics can remain (relatively) healthy, it isn't too far out of the question for Boston to rebound and start playing better.
Celtics fans know that this core group is far better than 4-8. Celtics fans know that Paul Pierce is the only guy outside of Rondo that can put his imprint on a game each and every night and essentially will the team to victory. Celtics fans understand that this season is far from over. The outlook at this point is grim, but if there is any solution on Boston's current roster it is Paul Pierce. For better or for worse. As his fitness improves we can hold out hope that his shot will as well, and Boston's shackles will hopefully loosen. After all, "The Truth" can set you free.