Still the Truth - Player profile: Paul Pierce

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Pierce has had to take on a bit of a larger workload since Rajon Rondo's injury. But how has he been playing this season? CelticsBlog's Josh Zavadil takes a deeper look.

Time is ticking down on the game clock, and Boston still trails. They could've been in a different position if they would've just hit some shots earlier in the game. Instead, they have to resort to Old Faithful. Old because, well, he's old by basketball standards. And faithful because he's been rather faithful over the years.

The Celtics inbound the ball to Paul Pierce, and he isolates above the break. A collective lump begins to form in the throats of Celtics faithful, unsure if the guy who has come to be known as The Truth will be able to rise up to the occasion once again.

He gets a screen and he uses it, and then he goes to work off the switch. He takes a dribble or two towards the three-point line, picks up his dribble, pump fakes and elevates.

Time stands still, or so it seems. Yet again, Pierce attempts a contested jumpshot, one that most coaches would frown upon and one that anyone who understands basketball knows is not a high percentage shot. And as has come to be expected over his years in the league, he drills it. Defying all reasoning, Paul Pierce ties the game. And the Celtics head to overtime.


That's been the routine throughout Pierce's time in the league, and he's already done it on a number of occasions this season. The 35-year-old Pierce, in his 15th season in the league, is still the face of the Boston Celtics.

He plays through pain, adds a number of different elements to his game when needed and is that ever- present lifeline at the end of games for Boston.

This season more than ever, Pierce has struggled from the field. Perhaps a mere byproduct of Father Time quickly catching up with him. Paul's numbers from the floor have been less than stellar at times.

Offensive outlook

THIS SEASON MORE THAN EVER, PIERCE HAS STRUGGLED FROM THE FIELD


Even just the basic statistics are down from the norm for Pierce. He's shooting his lowest percentage from the floor since his fifth season in the league -- a season in which he attempted four more shots per game than he is averaging this year, while taking less three point attempts. Perhaps that's a testament to Pierce's inability to get to the rack as often as he did in 2002-2003, but it does help display just how inconsistent his shooting has been.

Before the injury to Rajon Rondo in late January, Paul had an identical offensive and defensive rating of 100.9. In addition, his effective field goal percentage was 47.8 and his true shooting percentage was 53.7. Awful? No, not the worst. His struggles were more pronounced in the month of January.

It was revealed by Danny Ainge on a recent Celtics broadcast that Pierce has been playing with a pinched nerve in his neck. It's unclear at what point during the season that occurred, but if you look at his numbers, it would be a decent bet that it happened sometime in late December or early January.

He shot 44.1 percent from the field in December, and 35.5 percent from beyond the arc, both pretty comparable to league averages. His offensive rating was 100.5, down from 104.6 in November. That drop is understandable when you consider that the Celtics struggled as a team during the month of December, losing nine of 14 games. Seven of those games they lost by double digits.

His defensive rating rose to 103.1 in December from 101 in November. Not horrible numbers offensively, but perhaps indicative of the team defensive struggles and how it impacted Pierce's individual defense and points allowed per possession.

In January, things took a turn toward the not-so-good side. In 15 games, his offensive rating dropped to 97.8. He shot 39.9 percent from the field, which is around the league average, but still less-than-desirable. In fact, it's the lowest he's shot in one month since December of 2009.

His shooting from beyond the arc dropped seven percentage points from December to 28.9 percent. And while the advanced shooting numbers aren't awful -- 45.1 eFG%, 49.7 TS% -- his January was still a good bit lower than previous months.

Why was he shooting so poorly? One of the obvious factors has to be his lift. As has been the case at various points over the course of the past few seasons, Pierce goes through stretches where his lift, his legs just aren't giving him what he needs to be efficient. Some of it likely has to do with having to adjust to Bradley's presence on the floor. It was clear early on that the Celtics spacing wasn't quite where it needed to be.

Below is a Pierce's shot chart for January:

Piercejanuary_medium


Like any perennial All-Star, Pierce has had his stretches of brilliance this season. As a matter of fact, at least once a game you're left with a lasting, vivid image in your head of the type of player Paul Pierce has become known to be over the course of his career.

He'll catch the ball, use a slight jab step, put the ball on the floor, take it to the elbow where he will elevate and drain the shot. He's been referred to as a professional scorer, and that is absolutely The Truth.

There have been some stretches this year that warranted Pierce's name coming up in up all-star discussions. He didn't get a bid, but those brilliant stretches of play produced a justifiable argument to be made on his behalf.

When Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL, Paul increased the amount of time he handles the ball. He began distributing more. He began rebounding more. He's posted two triple-doubles since Rondo left, one against the Heat and another in the marathon game against the Denver Nuggets on February 10th.

In the 13 games since Rondo's injury, Pierce has posted a 104 OffRtg and a 94.1 DefRtg. His assist numbers have increased almost out of necessity as the Celtics are without a true primary ball handler. He's rebounding, at least defensively, better than he was prior to January 27th. He's taking a few less shots per game, but he's creating more chances for other guys and at a more frequent rate than in prior splits.

Below is a look at two tables -- the first one from the beginning of the season to January 27th, the second one since Rondo's injury.

Screen_shot_2013-02-25_at_4

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Offensive distribution


Pierce's most frequent type of offense comes when he's coming off of screens, according to MySynergySports. 18.3 percent of plays (ends in a field goal attempt, a turnover or free throws) which he's involved in end with Pierce coming off a screen. He's averaging 1.02 points per play, ranked 114th in the league. He's 63-of-167 coming off of screens with an eFG% of 46.

He's spotting up on 17.4 percent of all plays, averaging 1.01 ppp. He's shooting 37.5 percent on this plays, but his eFG% is 51, not obscenely awful. He's actually shooting his best percentage since the 2010-2011 on spot-ups, as seen below.

Screen_shot_2013-02-25_at_11



In 155 plays resulting in isolation opportunities for Pierce, he's averaging 0.81 ppp, shooting 45-of-112 from the field and a 40.4 eFG%. Which, while it's good enough to put him as 62nd in the league in that area, it's probably not something Boston wants Pierce doing as his primary source of offense.

When it comes to some of his struggles, there's no need to look much further than Pierce's propensity to turn the ball over in the pick and roll. 11.7 percent of his offense comes with Pierce as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and he's done well enough this year to be ranked 67th among qualified players.

However, he turns the ball over at a somewhat alarming rate during these plays. 16.5 percent of these plays result in turnovers, many times because Pierce has a difficult time getting around the corner when teams hedge hard. Teams have started to take note of this (he had similar struggles the past few seasons as well) and are occasionally sending two defenders at him. As a result, this older, more frequently tired version of Pierce ends up dribbling into traffic and turning it over or he makes an errant pass as the opposing team jumps the passing line pretty easily.

This video shows just a few examples.


He rotates pretty well still and, as of late, he's been showing encouraging timing on a number of his rotations. He's taken a number of charges in the past few weeks, oftentimes rotating for Kevin Garnett, getting set and taking the charge (or at the very least forcing a kick out or contested shot near the rim).

In terms of his most effective areas of individual defense according to MySynergySports, Paul defends well in isolation. He's ranked 30th among qualifying players, allowing just .62 ppp. His match-ups are shooting a measly 28.6 percent on isolation attempts.

His most frequent area of individual defense comes on spot-up plays. Paul is ranked 53rd among qualifying players, holding opponents to .82 ppp and 74-of-225 shooting (32.9 percent).

Pierce, like many of his teammates, has benefited from Avery Bradley's return to the Boston rotation. Bradley's ability to pressure the ball, force teams into hasty decisions and get the ball into the hands of guys before they're where they need to be can't be understated. He's disruptive, and it's allowed Pierce to settle into a much better groove defensively.

That's not to say he was abysmal prior to Bradley's return, but Pierce and the rest of the Celtics team struggled mightily without Bradley in the rotation.The numbers back that thought up as well. Prior to Bradley's return, Pierce's individual defensive rating was 103.1. Since Bradley's return on January 3rd against Memphis, Pierce's DefRtg has improved greatly, down to 95.4.

Clutch performance

The most widely used definition of "clutch" play is when the game is in the fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left on the clock and neither team ahead by more than 5 points. The definition is very broad, and if you take just that definition alone, Pierce is 20-of-50 from the field (40%) and 9-of-20 from distance (45%).

But, if you actually dive deeper into Pierce's numbers it tells more about Pierce's success (at times) in the clutch. During the last minute of the game with Boston trailing or behind by five points or less, Pierce is 5-of-14 from the field, or 35.7 percent. More importantly, he's shooting 50 percent (3-of-6) from three-point range in these situations.

As the clock continues to wind down to 10 seconds remaining with Boston tied or trailing and within three points, Pierce is not shooting quite as well. Who can truly blame him, or anyone, for that matter. The pressure felt at the end of games is far greater than at any other point during a game, hence why there's a measurable statistic tracking performance during those times. Pierce is shooting just 2-of-9 (22.2 percent) from the field, 2-of-5 (40 percent) from distance.

Pierce has done enough over the years to be Boston's go-to player down the stretch. There are a number of variables to consider when evaluating his play "in the clutch" this season. Ray Allen isn't taking any of those big shots anymore, Jason Terry hasn't taken many either and the rest of Boston's on-court options have made it a necessity for Pierce to handle much of the load.

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Conclusion

THAT'S WHAT MAKES GREAT PLAYERS GREAT. AMIDST ALL THE STRUGGLES HE CONTINUES FIGHTING AND DOES WHATEVER IT TAKES


To argue Pierce's deficiencies should be ignored, or that he isn't in fact shooting somewhat poorly this season is to ignore truth. He's The Captain, sure, but he also deserves to be judged under the same microscope with which every other player is examined.

He, like many of the league's best players over the years, has made a habit out of taking and making bad shots at times. Not all of his looks are bad, but just as Kobe Bryant takes a number of shots with a high degree of difficulty, Pierce is guilty as well.

He makes just enough for it to be overlooked in the grand scheme of things, oftentimes using crunch-time brilliance as a way to save the team after an awful shooting night.

And that's what has helped create the Celtics legend that is Paul Pierce. He wants the big shot, he takes the big shot and many times he makes the big shot. And his other woes are suddenly forgivable.

But, as mentioned before, it isn't all bad for Paul. He's been a catalyst for the Celtics since Rajon Rondo went down with his injury. He's rebounding better, he's scoring at a higher rate, he's still playing decent defense and he always seems to add something into his game that the team desperately needs.

That's what makes great players great. Amidst all the struggles, he continues fighting and does whatever it takes to get his team going. As the second half of the season continues and the Celtics make their move towards the playoffs, Pierce's performance will be as important as it has ever been.

Pierce has done what is necessary to lead the Celtics as much as he possibly can since the injuries to Rondo and Sullinger. Whether or not he'll become a little more consistent from the floor remains to be seen, but the second half of this season will likely be more about getting ready for a playoff run (nights off for Garnett and Paul, shortened minutes) than it is about dismantling every last opponent.

If we've learned one thing from Paul over his time in the league it's this: he'll be ready for those big moments. He's old, his game is slow and isn't aesthetically pleasing. He's a legend whose time left in the league is dwindling. But he's the captain of the team, the face of the franchise and he'll always be The Truth.

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