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Reveling in the Latest Tale of New Truth

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In the two-day wake of the Celtics' stirring come-from-behind win in Game 4 of the Finals, there remain plenty of wonderfully enjoyable story lines to go around.  Big Game James, "Too Much!" Eddie House, Doc coaching the game of his life (which we may address tomorrow); there's plenty to feel good about with the Celtics on the brink of clinching a 17th banner.

But of all those highly enjoyable plot lines, one stands out above the rest in my mind.  Back when the NBA's individual regular season awards came out, there was plenty of campaigning from Celts fans for Rajon Rondo to get the call for most improved.  Rondo didn't manage to edge out Hedo Turkoglu for the award, but he had a very nice second season and made great strides in several areas of his game.

But as much as Rondo hopped a level (or a few) this season, another funny thought struck me while I considered the issue of Most Improved Player: Rondo -- and, as should be clear from above, this is no disrespect to him --  wouldn't have gotten my nod for most improved Celtic.

That most improved Celtic also happens to be the guy who on Thursday night was responsible for asking to guard the man widely regarded as the league's mot dangerous individual offensive player.

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All of Steve's daily posts can be found in the CelticsBlog: NBA


Of course, as an established star in this league whose indivdual scoring numbers went way down this season, Paul Pierce never really had a chance at taking home any hardware for his transformation. 

But individual hardware means nothing.  It's the trophy at the end that counts, and the captain's leap forward as a complete player and leader has been immensely responsible toward helping the Celtics become a true championship contender.

The non-points numbers tell the story offensively.  Pierce shot the second best field goal percentage of his career (46.4), his best three-point percentage since 2002 (36.7) and hiis best rate from the charity stripe.  His 59.9 true shooting percentage was his best yet.  Actually watching Pierce play only continued the story of his newfound offensive efficiency: He has spent the season making a clear effort to drastically cut down on his tendency to break plays, force bad shots and occasionally make himself hard to watch.

Undoubtedly, on the teams he played for prior to this one, Pierce wound up in situations in which he had to take a lot of shots, but too often then, it still seemed to be "Paul against the world."  Now, Pierce looks to make the right decision with astounding regularity, be it through swinging the ball right away, bulling his way to the rim and forcing to the defense to react so that he can kick it out to an open shooter, or mastering the pick-and-roll.  No matter what the point totals say, Pierce has become a much more controlled and complete offensive player than he ever was before.  It's been a pleasure to watch.

But that pleasure has paled in comparison to the changes in Pierce on the defensive end of the floor.  Whether or not the struggles in the years past came from having to carry too much of the offensive load and thus needing to save energy somehwere else, I don't have a clue.  But no matter the reason, it certainly appeared that Pierce was a poor defender, particularly over the last three seasons prior to this one.  He garnered a reputation as a solid 'team defender,' but the joke to some was that he the label came solely from the fact that he was often so far away from his own man that outside observers assumed he simply had to be helping well, which often wasn't the case.  What irked me more than anything else was what certainly looked like loafing on his part, which first became plainly visible in the 2005 series against Indiana, in which Pierce failed time and time again to get back in position defensively.  He got beat off the dribble, and he seemed slow in plenty of situations that required crisp rotations as well.

But as we've been witnessing all season long, the Paul Pierce who couldn't be bothered on the defensive end is gone.  Maybe it was Kevin Garnett's presence.  Maybe it was Tom Thibodeau's addition to the staff.  But one way or the other, we've learned a new Truth regarding the Celts' defense all season: Paul Pierce wants it. 

Pierce isn't afraid to fight hard, use his body to be phsyical, dive for looseballs, scratch for rebounds or anything else to get the Celts the rock back without giving up any baskets beforehand.  He has been sliding to spots and rotating fluidly all season, but nothing has changed more than his on-ball defense.  Once a defensive liability, Pierce now plays hard, guts-out, fundamental defense for immensely long stretches at a time.

That tough individual defense has only gone to another level in this post-season.  Pierce ragged LeBron James for nearly the entirety of the second round.  He helped Tayshaun Prince to a putrid shooting experience in the conference finals.  And he has changed his mentality to show that he understands how this all works.  He isn't content to simply be an electrifying scorer.  He understands that he has the physique and the supporting cast to become a serious defender, and he realizes that this team has long needed someone in the lineup who could guard the oppositions' best swingman.  To top matters off, it seems he has done it all because he wants it; because of how badly he wants to win.

Paul Pierce -- the captain aaaaaand The Truth -- gets that.

That today's Paul Pierce asked to guard Kobe Bryant, that he had the desire to truly face that challenge -- as he did in the midst of Game 4 -- says more than enough about how far Pierce has come this season.

That he was integral in stopping Bryant that night was just a cherry on top.

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