Paul Pierce is known for a lot of things these days.
The, shall we say, interesting basketball takes he’s had involving the likes of LeBron James, Klay Thompson, and Dwyane Wade are what first come to mind. Getting fired from ESPN and then ranting about it does as well. He’s gotten flack for it all, whether on social media or even from his own colleagues.
You can try to recall the player he once was as a reminder of the respect he’s earned regardless of his hot takes, but it’s so easy to get distracted by the shortcomings of the last we saw of him on an NBA court and forget to go to the good stuff, mainly his years in Boston.
Draymond Green openly mocked him for not getting a Kobe Bryant-like farewell tour during his final season in 2017. Pierce didn’t exactly have a grand last hurrah, scoring two points in fewer than two minutes in the final game of his career.
All of it has contributed to this image of Pierce, one where he’s a near-constant laughing stock of NBA Twitter whose career accomplishments are either being constantly put down or ignored altogether, which is ridiculous.
Pierce may not be on the level of some of his contemporaries, but in the wake of a well-deserved Hall-of-Fame induction, I find it of the utmost importance to remind everyone of the truth about The Truth.
We can start with the basics, and those honestly do plenty of talking.
Career averages of 19.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game over 19 NBA seasons. Those numbers increase to 21.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.9 assists a night during his 15 years with the Boston Celtics.
10-time All-Star. 4-time All-NBA selection. Top-10 all-time in 3-pointers made. 16th-leading scorer in NBA history. 2nd-most points in the storied history of the Celtics franchise. And, most importantly, an NBA champion and Finals MVP.
That’s quite a story, but it’s not the entire story of Paul Pierce, because no list of accomplishments could properly encapsulate what made him the player he was.
Many players often try to treat every game and every shot just like all the others. They subscribe to the mantra that suggests not to get too high or low. It helps calm nerves that, if left unchecked, could snowball in a way that proves detrimental to their ability to perform.
Pierce was the complete opposite. Whether it was a primetime matchup or closing time in a tight game, he always recognized the circumstance or the moment and gave it the added attention it deserved.
“To me, you’re one of the top five closer, clutch motherf---ing players of all-time,” Matt Barnes told Pierce on his podcast, All The Smoke. “You embraced ‘give me the ball at the end, and I’m gonna to make this motherf---ing shot.’ If it’s the biggest game, I’m gonna drop 40. That’s what you were known for to people who really knew hoop.”
From 1996 to 2017 (the year “clutch” data —defined as a game within the final five minutes and the score within five points or fewer— became available through Pierce’s final season), only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki knocked down more shots in the clutch. Only Kobe, Dirk, and Carmelo Anthony drilled more go-ahead shots in the final five seconds. Pierce and Bryant sit atop the leaderboards with 10 game-winning buzzer-beaters during that span.
Pierce had countless tit-for-tat battles with the greats of his time, most notably in 2008 when his 41 points helped Boston advance past LeBron’s 45 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He and Bryant traded baskets across two Finals clashes and countless regular-season matchups fueled by the added juice of the NBA’s greatest rivalry.
It was never just another game for Pierce. It couldn’t be. Bragging rights were on the line. To be recognized amongst the greats meant taking the others down. If Pierce didn’t come out on top, he always went down swinging.
And when Pierce did drop a bucket between your eyes or bested you in a duel, he was not shy about letting anyone from the opposing team and their fans know. Chest bumps. Grins. Trash talk. It was the kind of swagger that made those triumphant moments so much more enjoyable for Celtics fans yet threw salt in the wounds he cut open for the opposition.
This was the guy who told Al Harrington exactly what he was going to do before burying a three right in his face. He was that cold-blooded and had the elite shot-making ability to back it up more often than not.
“Part of trash-talking is backing it up, and I would say [Pierce’s] level of trash-talking is about the doing and him telling you what he’s about to do,” former teammate Kevin Garnett said of Pierce. “You hear these tales about Larry Bird, like, ‘hey, I’m coming down here, and I’m fixing to shoot the three right in your face.’ Well, our generation, that was Paul Pierce. ‘Hey, I’m fixing to shoot this right in your face. You ready?”
How easily people forget the difficulties Pierce caused LeBron for many years while in Cleveland and even after the King took his talents to South Beach. It was Pierce who hit a dagger three over James to give Boston a 3-2 series lead in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, sending the Heatles to the brink of a potentially league-altering collapse.
Pierce motivated Kobe in the wake of The 2008 Finals in which Boston toppled LA in six games.
“He (Bryant) came in, and we were drinking a little wine, playing some Spades, just chilling, and he came in, sat down, poured himself a glass, and he was kind of reading a paper,” Sue Bird recalled on The Old Man and the Three podcast. “So, he opens up the paper, and there’s this article about [the Finals], and there’s a picture of Paul Pierce. We look over, and he’s tearing out the picture of Paul Pierce, and he cuts it out, and he folds it up, and he puts it in his pocket. And we’re all looking at him, like, ‘What’s going on?’”
We’re talking about a gigantic thorn in the side of two of the greatest players of all time, along with plenty of the other greats of the 2000’s. He dropped 46 points to eliminate Allen Iverson and the 76ers in the first round of the 2002 playoffs. He knocked Dwyane Wade out of the 2010 playoffs, essentially ending the series in Game 3 with a walk-off game-winner.
Pierce was that guy. And he did it under the pressures that come from playing for one of the winningest franchises in all of sports.
That’s The Truth, and it deserves its respect.