In my opinion, Paul Pierce is one of the top 25 players in the game. He's the Celtic that has been here the longest and has carried the burden of this team's losing on his back. He has embraced the Celtic traditions and desperately wants to be a winner worthy of that tradition. I'm a big fan. So why has he faced critics and trade rumors for most of his career? Why isn't he considered one of the top 10 to 15 players?
The simplest answer is what fans like to call "Evil Paul." As in a superhero's bad twin. As in a split personality. As in, most of the time we see a brilliant scorer, passer, rebounder, teammate, and even defender (Good Paul). But every once in a while, we see a ball hogging, shot forcing, immature, non-defender (Evil Paul).
Good Paul is the guy that in years past would often lead his team in every statistical category. He makes teammates better by driving to the hoop and passing off for easy layups. He gets opponents into foul trouble and piles up points at the free throw line. He runs off picks and keeps his head up. He gets his teeth knocked out and keeps playing. He's a gamer.
Evil Paul is the guy that dribbles the ball at the top of the key, bobbing his head, shaking his body left and right before cannonballing himself into triple coverage before either losing the ball or hoisting up a desperation heave that has a 10% chance of going in. He walks the ball up the court when the team should be pushing the pace. He jaws with opponents and refs when he could be focusing on helping his team. He even sometimes acts immature to the point of hurting his team.
It wasn't so much that he didn't trust his teammates (though that might have been part of it). It was probably more along the lines of what Kobe Bryant thinks every time down the court. "Why should I pass it when I know I have a better shot at scoring triple teamed than most of these guys do in single coverage?"
Pierce has grown up a whole lot in the last few years, and that is a huge credit to him and even to the coaching staff that has worked with him through the years. We've seen Evil Paul come out less and less. And now that Pierce has his "costars," we're seeing him less than ever. But he still comes out every once in a while.
I don't know Paul personally, and I'm no psychologist, but I have watched him for his whole career and I have a pretty good guess as to why we see these different sides of Peirce. I think he's just an emotional guy. Plain and simple.
Look at guys like Duncan or even Ray Allen. They are even keeled. They give a consistent effort and get consistent results. Allen's results fluctuate more because he's shooting from further away, but he's always Ray. Neither Duncan nor Allen let anything take their focus away from what they do.
Pierce isn't like that at all. He feeds off his emotion. It gets him going and gives him that extra gear that sets him apart from the pack. He likes feeding off the crowd or rising to a challenge or overcoming obstacles to seize the day. He wants the high of victory and aches for it.
The flipside is that all that emotion left unbridled can do just as much harm as good, if not more. Maybe some days talking trash with an opponent gets Paul motivated. But some days, it just gets him distracted and perhaps even makes him forget the gameplan. Sometimes Pierce will take a bad call from an official and let it motivate him to overcome. Too often (especially in the past) his temper gets the best of him and he can't focus on anything but the bad call. Or sometimes the flow of the game will impose its will upon Pierce instead of the other way around.
For instance, in the game against the Heat Pierce was brilliant in the first half. He couldn't miss and he was the main reason why the team built a 28 point lead. In the second half, the team seemed to let up. Maybe it was the jetlag or maybe the team thought the Heat would roll over and die like the Knicks had a day earlier, but they visibly eased up on the Heat. Things started going Miami's way. Lose balls, rebounds, lucky rolls, everything that had happened for the Celtics in the first half started happening for the Heat. This wasn't all Pierce's fault by a long shot, but the point is he fell right into it with everyone else. Everything he tried looked forced and the ball stopped moving freely in the offense.
Contrast that with the game against Cleveland on Sunday. Pierce only scored 7 points, I think he had a very solid game. He was all over the court on defense (picking up 3 steals), he moved the ball, and he hustled for loose balls (earning a few Tommy Points). He made a very positive impact on the game without having to score all the points. Part of me wonders if could have done the same if LeBron was on the court yapping at him the whole game. Would he still have taken only 7 shots, or would he have forced a few more in there?
Of course that is the beauty of having Garnett and Ray Allen on this team now. Even if Evil Paul comes out once in a while, we don't need to rely on him anymore. Some days Ray Allen will have the hot hand and take over a game. Sometimes Garnett will take advantage of his natural mismatch over everyone in the league and simply dominate a game. And more and more it seems that Pierce is able to recognize when he's not helping the team with his scoring and understands how to step back and let his teammates lead the charge.
A bonus benefit to those two is the influence they have on Pierce. He can learn from watching Ray Allen's professionalism every day. Or in at least one case we've heard about, Kevin Garnett has given Pierce advice on how to channel his energy. Remember the pushup he did at the foul line? We found out later that was all about a conversation with Garnett about doing whatever it takes to get the negative energy out of his system and channel it into something positive. Pierce took his advice literally and instead of lashing out at the opponent or official, he did a pushup.
More and more we are seeing Paul Pierce mature and grow as a person and player. There's always the chance that Evil Paul could make an appearance, and the greatest fear is that it will happen when we need Good Paul the most. But with Garnett and Allen around, the hope is that those times will be rare and the team will be able to work through it together.
Pierce may never be considered one of the top 10 players in the game. On the other hand, if he can keep control of his emotions and work with his teammates, he might be a big part of a team that could be the best in the league. I'll take that any day and I think he would too.