This wasn't the way Paul Pierce was supposed to go out. Not Pierce — the biggest, baddest, swaggeriest villain we've seen in an NBA generation. Pierce was the consummate heel; the guy that one fanbase could love as the other 29 loved to hate him. He was like a Bad Boy Piston reincarnate. He was the guy who made you boo, hiss, jeer, and seethe with rage ... until he made you cringe when he got the ball for one last clutch shot in a key moment. He terrified you as much as he riled you up. He never quite went away.
Pierce's 2015 postseason — the most compelling run of 10 games I can recall a player having, in terms of nonstop entertainment value — came to a close in a bizarre and unceremonious way. It was an abrupt ending to a postseason that deserved better. Pierce's run — a trash-talking, shot-making, "game!"-calling thrill ride that none of us will soon forget — concluded not with the swish of a net or the utterance of one last catchphrase. Instead, there was a video review and an official's hand signal.
No basket. Just like that ... it was over.
Look at that face.
Love Pierce or hate him, that his persona made for amazing television is indisputable. Even on nights when he was only sparingly relevant, he was still there, lurking. He wasn't going away without a fight.
Now he's out, and with him go the hopes of a Cinderella run to the Finals for him, John Wall, Bradley Beal and the rest of the Washington Wizards. Once again, an NBA upstart team goes home and the Goliaths fight on. It's what we've mostly come to expect from the first two rounds of the playoffs — captivating, controversial but ultimately doomed.
On one hand, that sucks. Pierce is now 37, it is entirely possible that we have witnessed the conclusion of a 17-year run of brilliance from one of the game's great players and personalities.
On the other? It's a miracle Pierce has made it this far. That he's even reached this point is worth celebrating.
It's difficult to summarize the adversity Paul Pierce has overcome in his professional career; the twists and turns that have helped shape who he is today. The fundamental question quickly becomes: where to even begin?
You'd be remiss not to acknowledge that Pierce is incredibly fortunate to have achieved all that he has in the NBA, given that he survived a gruesome attack in a Boston nightclub in the summer of 2000 in which he was stabbed in the face, neck and back by an unknown assailant. There were legitimate fears that Pierce, then 22, might not even survive, let alone go on to play Hall of Fame level basketball.
He faced his trials and tribulations on the court, too, spending the first half of the aughts struggling to come to terms with his role as the Celtics' franchise player. Pierce led the team on a couple of decent playoff runs — including a 2002 appearance in a hard-fought Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey that ended in six games — but he was never quite satisfied. The pressures of leading the Celtics, with their storied history and the fans' high expectations, got to him.
When the team declined, and the C's won 33 games in 2005–06 followed by 24 the year after, Pierce's frustrations mounted and the trade rumors picked up steam.
Eventually, the team went in the opposite direction, building around Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and the rest was history. The next half-decade was a dream — a ring, deep playoff runs each spring, and countless chances for a prideful C's group to show its mettle on national TV.
For Pierce, an on-court provocateur who's always loved making a name for himself in big games, it was perfect. He dueled with (and beat) Kobe and LeBron. When the former tried to win that elusive ring without Shaquille O'Neal in 2008, it was Pierce who beat him. When the latter decided to leave Cleveland and create a new opportunity for himself in South Beach, it was his determination to beat Pierce's Celtics that motivated him.
In this way, although Pierce has never been the best player in the NBA (he might have been even one of the best five or 10), he's always been one of the most relevant. He's always forced his way into the conversation.
That's why it was so jarring when that relevance began to fade.
I remember the 2012–13 season well. I covered every Celtic home game and a handful of practices that season. They were fresh off a 2011–12 season in which they'd gone deep in the East playoffs by pushing LeBron's Heat to seven games, and they wanted to prove they could do it again. But the 2012–13 team was flawed. It was too small, with KG forced to play too many minutes at center instead of at the four, and it lacked shooting after replacing the departed Ray Allen with a Jason Terry/Avery Bradley platoon. Then, in January, came the deathblow, as a torn ACL for Rajon Rondo appeared to spell the end of the Celtics' hopes for another deep run.
It was Pierce who fought like hell against the dying of that light.
To any outsider, it looked obvious that the Celtics were too old, and too washed up to compete, but Pierce was too fiercely competitive to believe any of that noise. Rather than concede defeat with Rondo gone for the year, he instead took over the floor leadership role himself, rebranding himself as something we'd never seen before in the NBA — a 35-year-old dynamo of a point forward.
Pierce, who averages 3.7 assists per game for his career, somehow cranked out 7.6 per game in February and 7.3 in March of 2013. He singlehandedly kept the Celtics' offense afloat down the stretch that season, carrying them to a 41–40 record (their 82nd game was cancelled, tragically, when the Boston Marathon bombing hit the city during the final week of the season).
Ultimately, the Celtics ran out of gas that spring. They fell behind 3–0 against the Knicks in the first round, then scratched and clawed to steal Games 4 and 5, before their season ended with a bizarre Game 6 at the TD Garden. The Knicks led 75–49, but Boston somehow rallied for an unbelievable 20 consecutive points, even though the herculean effort came up short. Pierce finished that game 4-for-18, his five assists matched by five turnovers. It was his last time wearing green.
In Boston, that's the lasting impression that Pierce left behind. No matter what came his way, he was a guy who refused to stop competing. Whatever was required of him — whether it was hitting the big shot, or taking over the point guard duties, or whatever else — he'd find a way to do it. Simply put, Pierce was relevant because he refused not to be.
Over the last two seasons, Pierce has continued in his role as Pesky Old Guy Who Just Won't Go Away. In Brooklyn, he was actually the focal point of a major tactical change that turned the Nets' season around — that 2013–14 club improved dramatically when Jason Kidd began to play Pierce at the power forward spot, stretching the floor and opening things up for an offense that began far more dynamic overnight. Even at his advanced age, Pierce was still good for a solid 13 or 14 points a night with the Nets. Then in the playoffs, he gave Brooklyn its play of the year, eliminating the Raptors by doing this to Kyle Lowry:
Then Mr. Pierce went to Washington.
Most fans probably expected Pierce, who was 36 when he hit free agency last summer, to fade away after yet another tough playoff elimination (against Miami in round two), but most fans were wrong. Instead, Pierce made a shrewd decision that would rejuvenate his career — teaming up with one of the game's best young point guards (and, as Pierce put it in such typical Pierce fashion, the president):
While Pierce's season in Washington wasn't exactly earth-shattering (per game averages this year of 11.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists), he still managed to sneak into the headlines for mouthing off to various Eastern Conference opponents.
Pierce notably jabbed at LeBron and the Cavaliers when he said in a radio interview that "I still can't stand none of these guys," and he gave the Raptors some pre-playoffs bulletin board material when he quipped, "I don't feel they have the 'it' that makes you worried" in a sit-down with ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. Pierce also got in a fight with Joakim Noah and poked him in the face during a preseason game.
Even when his buckets and boards started to fall off, Pierce's penchant for shit-talking and pot-stirring wasn't going anywhere.
Then, in the playoffs, the on-court Pierce was actually pretty good. Consider that, historically, very few players in the game's history have done what Pierce did at his age:
And that's just the numbers; Pierce's contribution was more than what showed up in the box score. He gave the Wizards veteran leadership; he gave them playoff know-how; he gave them swagger. He also gave them one of the greatest moments in team history, making a ridiculous, Game 3 winning, 21-foot fadeaway over Atlanta's Dennis Schroder that P.J. Carlesimo justifiably referred to as "just an impossible shot."
Just for good measure, Pierce followed up the shot with the catchphrase of the year.
With those three words — "I called game" — a hobbled old man on an underdog team somehow reestablished himself as the man of the hour. Suddenly the Wizards, who no one even thought was a threat, were up 2–1 and everyone's favorite playoff sleeper.
Sadly, though, that may have been the last game Pierce ever wins. The Hawks polished the Wizards off in Games 4 through 6, and Pierce's offseason promises to be fraught with uncertainty. If he is indeed done, his brief tour with the Wizards will only enhance his legacy. The man always found a way to impose his will on the game, whether by running the offense or running his mouth. The spring of 2015 will go down as no exception.
So, is this really the end?
We have reason to believe that it is. The 17-year-veteran was his usual candid self in the locker room following the Wizards' season-ending loss, and according to The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, he insinuated that it might be time for him to hang it up:
"Truthfully, what was going through my mind is, I don't have too much of these efforts left, if any. These rides throughout the NBA season, throughout the playoffs, are very emotional. They take a lot out of not only your body, but your mind, your spirit."
There is little doubt it's difficult being Paul Pierce. The challenge extends far beyond the raw numbers of minutes he's put on his body — 44,372 in the regular season and 6,074 in the playoffs — but, as Pierce said, there are mental and emotional costs to consider as well. Being a go-to scorer, a veteran leader and somewhat of a trash-talking goon is a lot for one man to handle. He may decide that after 17 seasons and 50,446 minutes played, enough is enough.
If he does, here's to a great career. We may have taken Pierce's presence a for granted over the years, but he has always been a compelling personality, always a can't-miss entertainer, always a factor.
Multiple times during his final couple of years with Brooklyn and Washington, Pierce was seen hitting big shots and then mouthing off for the camera, "That's why I'm here!" He was right, obviously — his ability as a shotmaker is one of the main reasons he's still worth $5 million and change to an NBA team — but in the grand scheme of things, Pierce is "here" for much more than that. He's a character; he's a hero to a select few; he's a villain to a great many. He's something to everyone; he's unforgettable.
If and when he's gone, the NBA will never be the same without him.
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