Paul Pierce was visibly frustrated in the waning minutes of Wednesday night's loss to the Detroit Pistons, and understandably so.
His team was in the midst of squandering an eight-point halftime lead and eventually fell to a down-on-its-luck and depleted Pistons squad. Making matters worse was the fact that Detroit's second half zone defense eliminated almost all hope of Pierce improving on his scorching 19-point effort in the first half.
Detroit's zone defense appeared to frustrate Paul Pierce on Wednesday, and Pierce was unable to figure it out. After taking nine shots in the first quarter (making six of them) against a man-to-man defense throwing the likes of Jonas Jerebko and Richard Hamilton at him, Pierce took just one shot in the third quarter and scored only two points, which came at the free throw line. The Pistons successfully tied the game heading into the fourth quarter, where matters only grew worse for Pierce and co. After taking just one shot in the third and scoring two points, Pierce took just two shots the entire fourth quarter (both unsuccessful three-point attempts) and scored zero points.
Granted, Pierce was not going to win the game Wednesday night going one-on-one against a five man zone defense. The Celtics needed a complete team effort involving plenty of passes and a big man flashing (get your mind out of the gutter) at the free throw line to overcome Detroit's 'D'. However, is anyone else surprised at how uninvolved Pierce actually was over the final 12 minutes? Sure, the zone limits one-on-one play, but Pierce suffered from an overall lack of aggressiveness, which is very uncharacteristic of him.
The free throws in particular stick out. No free throw attempts during that fourth quarter. The opportunities for mid-range and fadeaway jump shots along the wings might not have been there, but Pierce is one of the best in the business at finding ways to knife between any defensive set to get himself to the charity stripe. Perhaps he could have been the one flashing to the free throw line, which would have freed up a lane to the rim or a chance for him to take a short jump shot. Maybe then, Detroit would have had to re-adjust its defense. Either way, an uncharacteristic lack of production from Pierce in the fourth certainly didn't help the Celtics' cause during Wednesday's collapse.
Couple that with the fact that Ray Allen scored just eight points the entire game and it's no wonder the Celtics managed just 17 points in the final frame.
Unfortunately, Wednesday night's fourth quarter stinker was just the most recent example of some visible struggles Pierce and Allen have been having in the final 12 minutes ever since Pierce returned from his right knee infection.
In the eight games Pierce has played since returning from injury (the Celtics are just 3-5 in those games), he's averaged a very productive 20.25 points per game. However, over that same stretch he's averaging just 3.25 points per game in the fourth quarter, meaning 17 of Pierce's 20.25 points have been scored over the course of the first three quarters (84 percent). He's also been held scoreless three times over this stretch (Jan. 11 against Atlanta, Jan. 13 against New Jersey and Wednesday against Detroit). If you want to cut out the New Jersey game because Pierce didn't need to play in the fourth, that's fine by me. If you cut out that game entirely, his scoring average in the fourth quarter over this stretch jumps to 3.71 points per game. Still nothing to write home about.
Ray Allen hasn't produced much more than Pierce in the fourth over the same stretch, boasting a fourth quarter scoring average of only 4.4 points.
I stress this being uncharacteristic of Pierce because we've rightfully come to expect him to come through late in games when his team needs him the most. He's based the majority of his career around it. I was unable to find Pierce's career scoring average in fourth quarters, but I'd guess it's between 6 and 10 points. Regardless of the number, we all know how clutch Pierce is. When the game is on the line, I want Paul Pierce to have the basketball. However, that entails him being aggressive with the ball late in games and that just hasn't happened lately, particularly in the Celtics' latest two losses.
Against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, Pierce managed just three points in the fourth quarter and, as previously stated, was held scoreless in the fourth against the Pistons. In both games the Celtics held legitimate leads at halftime, but due to a drastic drop off in their overall energy level, their opponents were able to claw their way back into the game and pull out wins. Is it a coincidence that in both games Pierce vastly underachieved in the final frame? I'm certainly not going to pin either loss solely on Pierce, but it can't be denied that the Celtics as a team probably would have benefited from Pierce being more aggressive and looking for his own offense in the fourth quarter of these games, especially considering they built both their first half leads with him scoring at will. In both games the Celtics as a team fell apart, and they needed their captain to take hold of the reigns and steer the team back on track.
The Celtics might not have wanted to completely go into "Give it to Paul and get out of the way" mode, seeing as this team has plenty of offensive weapons at its disposal, but in the midst of the team crumbling beneath itself, it should allow Pierce to be something of a rock or a stabilizer, just until the team as a whole can get back on the same page. If no one is willing to vocally lead this team with Kevin Garnett out of the lineup, Pierce can at least lead by example, which he was doing admirably in the first half of both of these games. He gave us the whole arsenal: The drives and the spin moves, the three-pointers, the mid range game and the free throws. He brought out the whole package, but taped it back up and shipped it out of town via UPS at halftime.
Look at the Dallas game, specifically. The Mavericks chose to stick with a man-to-man defense for the entire game, and for three quarters, Pierce torched them with 21 points. But then it all...stopped. Pierce just stopped scoring. As helpless as the Celtics were against Dirk Nowitzki, did the Mavs actually have an answer for Paul Pierce? Shawn Marion would have been their best candidate, but does anyone really believe he would have completely shut Pierce down? Unlikely. Pierce's lack of scoring was much more a product of the Celtics' inept offense, rather than that vaunted Mavericks defense.
Are there other reasons behind Pierce's lack of production in the final frame? Are his legs not completely back under him yet, causing him to fade late in games? Is he still banged up (think of how many times he's banged knees with another player since his knee infection)? Are Doc's rotations messing up his rhythm? It's very difficult to imagine Pierce willingly shutting himself down late in a game. Paul's never been one to try and "prove a point" by becoming invisible towards the end of a close game, so I'm going to rule out that possibility. Paul wants to win and wouldn't hurt his team's chances of winning by removing himself from the action when the game's on the line.
Kevin Garnett will hopefully make his return to the court tonight against the Portland Trailblazers, which will take a little bit of pressure off of just about everyone. That includes Pierce and his offense. Boston's offense as a whole is much different with Garnett in the lineup, given his ability to run the pick-and-roll, along with his overall versatility and passing ability. It's won't necessarily be a necessity for Pierce to score significant points in the fourth quarter in order for this team to win. Hopefully that will wipe the look of frustration off Pierce's face - a look that probably grew, along with the losing, out of his recent fourth quarter struggles.