Just when you thought it was safe to declare Paul Pierce "just fine" he was off his game again yesterday. I'm a big believer in Paul and I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. He certainly earned that respect in last year's playoffs. I will never again question his heart. I am, however, starting to worry about the rest of his body.
There has been sufficient speculation about Pierce potentially being hurt. In fact, Matt Moore from Hardwood Paroxysm has been banging this drum slowly for the last several months.
Celtics fans, this game was a pretty good example of why I believe Pierce is injured more than he’s letting on. Letting Gordon blow by him to tie the game? Not finishing at the rim? Shooting 9 of 24? GETTING BLOCKED BY JOHN FREAKING SALMONS on a game-tying attempt? If Pierce had had one poor game, two okay games, and one awesome game like Game 3? Okay, everyone has a bad game. But he’s consistently having trouble in things like running, jumping, and moving side to side. Those are pretty important for basketball. You can point at his points, but so many of those are coming from open jump shots because of Rondo and Allen or free throws. I fully expect him to go off for 25-30 in Game 5. It’s not about him not being able to hit Truth level, it’s about him being able to consistently bring it at that level. And physically right now, I don’t see him doing that.
My consistent answer to Matt has been this: Nobody but Paul knows if he's actually hurt more than he's letting on. But I would submit that all NBA players, and particularly veterans, are banged up and tired at this point in the season. Toss in the fact that he's over 30, had a really short offseason, played in 81 games at 37.5 min per, and has had to shoulder a good portion of the load with KG out of the lineup, and you've got a recipe for a sloggy looking Paul Pierce. (and it doesn't help that it was a double overtime game yesterday either)
Game 3 proved that he can turn up the volume and be the Paul that we all know and love. On the other hand, it is hard to maintain that focus and drive when your body is simply wearing down. I'll point to the non-clutch free throw misses as an example. If Pierce is just banged up, you wouldn't think that would effect his ability to hit a game winning free throw. On the other hand, if he's physically and mentally tired, it makes more sense.
The big difference between this year and last year is that there's a lot more pressure on Paul to get it done. Steve Bulpett puts it this way:
Admittedly, the following sentence is as specious and unfair as it is true: If Paul Pierce makes two free throws, the Celtics' series with the Chicago Bulls is over.
There's not much that you can do about it at this point in the post season. Doc can give him practices off to rest, but KG isn't coming back any time soon (as far as I know) to help unburden the load. So he has to find a way to fight on through it.
Pierce has never been the most athletic guy on the court. He uses hesitation moves, spacing, and great timing on his drives and pull ups. The problem is that really athletic teams sometimes cause him fits if they couple that athleticism with good spacing and patience. What Paul has to do is look at game film and try to outsmart the young Bulls.
“They tried to take away my space and force me to drive, and I thought they did a good job in forcing me into a lot of turnovers, turnovers that I shouldn’t have,” Pierce said. “Those type of plays are costly. You look up and I have six turnovers. I’m going to go back and look at the tapes and see what I can do differently so I don’t turn over the ball.”
I still am of the mindset that Paul Pierce can and will return to form sooner rather than later. I don't want to overreact to a bad game or two. He had some less than stellar games in last year's playoffs too. It happens. He still has an opportunity to turn things around.
With that said, I'm concerned. I don't know for sure that he's going to be "just fine." I worry about his ability to fight through the fatigue this year and I worry about how quickly his skills will erode in the next couple of years as he ages.
Kevin Garnett is/was the soul of our defense. Rajon Rondo is our future and our quarterback. Ray Allen is our dagger. But Paul Pierce is still the heart of this team. His heart is still there, I just hope the rest of his body can be too.