Celtics star Paul Pierce hopes to once again lead a charge to the Eastern Conference Finals.
With only a dozen games left on their regular-season schedule, the Boston Celtics have about a month to prepare for the playoffs. And without floor leader Rajon Rondo and top rookie Jared Sullinger, Paul Pierce must prepare himself to play a bigger postseason role than ever before.
The captain has always been instrumental to Boston's success, as evidenced by his 2008 NBA Finals MVP trophy. But this year is a whole different animal.
Ray Allen joined the enemy and defending champion Miami Heat. Injuries have ravaged the roster from top to bottom. New in-season additions include three players from the Chinese league, leading to heightened minutes for Pierce and fellow veteran Kevin Garnett.
With so much working against them, a Celtics championship push this year depends on Pierce. The following list of tasks details what the franchise's second-leading scorer must do to push Boston back to the Eastern Conference Finals, and possibly beyond.
When Pierce rebounds the ball, good things tend to happen. Over his last 10 games, the “Truth” has averaged 7.3 rebounds in seven wins and 4.3 in three losses.
Simply put, the Celtics thrive when he hits the glass. Since Rondo's season-ending ACL tear, Boston has gone a perfect 7-0 when Pierce exceeds the double-digit mark in boards.
While his offensive rebounding identity remains largely nonexistent, he makes an undeniable impact on the defensive end. He has averaged over seven rebounds a game this calendar year, pushing Boston from relative obscurity to a virtual tie with the Chicago Bulls at the six seed in the Eastern Conference.
Pierce's leadership and heart have truly paved the way. But the fact that he averages almost a full rebound and a half (7.0) more in wins than in losses (5.6) cannot be overlooked.
As a small team with a jump-shooting identity, Boston continually struggles on the boards. The loss of Rondo and Sullinger (back surgery), and the disappearance of Brandon Bass (unforced choking) have not helped. Kevin Garnett cannot be the only player boxing out.
The Celts need Pierce to bang down low as often as possible, especially against large playoff opponents and quality rebounding squads like the Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets. An average of 39 team rebounds and fewer a night will not get this team past a seven-game series, regardless of the opponent.
As touched upon earlier, Pierce has been the undisputed leader of this team in Rondo's absence. He has far-and-away led the Celtics in assists, averaging 6.8 in February and 5.9 so far in March.
But with added pressure to create comes increased turnovers. The captain averaged close to three TOs a contest last month and a baffling 4.0 since March 1. He must take better care of the basketball, especially in late moments of games.
Sloppy play has led to poor cross-court passes and a frequent tendency to get overzealous on the drive, perhaps doing too much or trying too hard. Pierce must slow down a bit during this home-stretch to the playoffs, or Boston's offensive rhythm and collective momentum will be long gone.
The Celtics' seven-game winning streak and 8-4 February record would not have been possible without his 2.34 assist-to-turnover ratio over the course of the month. Now, having only won six of 10 games in March, it's hard not to look at the contrasting 1.47 rate.
As Garnett alluded to in early February, the Celtics can only go as far as Paul Pierce takes them. The captain must avoid unforced errors and go back to playing within his offensive means. Otherwise, seven-turnover fiascoes like the loss vs. the Miami Heat on March 18 will recur in May and June.
He is the only Celtic who can make every other player better on offense. Unfortunately, he can also make the team worse if he does not value the ball.
Without a true point guard, Pierce unofficially wears the label of veteran floor general. He needs to contribute solid point-forward play for Boston to once again advance to the Conference Finals.
As Pierce gets older and more beat up, his foot speed decreases and his man-to-man defense struggles. He gets outrun by just about every small forward under the age of 30, and looks overmatched by larger opponents in the post more than ever before.
For the Celtics to have a shot at making a legitimate championship threat, the Truth will need to play impeccable defense against 28-year-old All-Stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
Let's examine King James as Exhibit A: in the March 18 loss to the Heat, the Celtics got posterized in more ways than one, allowing James to score 37 points on 16-of-29 shooting. He also added 12 assists and seven boards.
Jan. 27 was not much better. Pierce's counterpart put up 34 points (14-of-31) with 16 rebounds and seven assists. Sure, it was a double-overtime victory for the Celts, but Pierce has to contain LeBron much better than that.
James loves bringing his A-game to Boston. And the rivalry between these squads has recently heated up (no pun intended). If Pierce keeps letting him average 30 or more, the team in green stands no chance to advance (no rhyme intended).
The same goes for the New York Knicks' Carmelo, who posted 28 points and nine boards in their win in Boston Jan. 24. And Brooklyn exposed Pierce a bit last time they squared off, unleashing crafty veteran Gerald Wallace for 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
Perhaps most alarming, Pierce averages one fewer steal per 48 minutes since the All-Star game, dropping to 0.8. And he's committing 0.7 more fouls per game. This unfortunate seesawing seems to further highlight his slowed feet and hurting legs.
Fans will closely monitor the captain's defense in the two upcoming games against the Knicks in late March, as well as respective April dates with the Heat and Nets.
Either Pierce will prove his readiness to lead Boston's D to another Finals push, or his body will show that it's ready for him to book the offseason fishing trip. Expect more of the former than the latter, as he almost always steps up defensively in big playoff games.
Pierce has been lights-out from long range as of late, shooting 45 percent since February and a staggering 50 percent since March. And it seems that the more shots he hoists up from beyond the arc, the better his stroke becomes.
Coach Doc Rivers must utilize this hot streak down the stretch, encouraging the captain to attempt more than three or four a game. If he's shooting 2-of-3 from three-point land, he should not be hesitating one bit at even the sight of an open shot.
Maybe Pierce can learn from Jason Terry how to throw threes up without a care in the world. Whereas “Jet” blatantly disregards the team offense, Truth often seems too interested in contributing to it. It's pretty simple: Boston wins games when Pierce hits big threes.
In fact, in Boston's 36 wins this season, Pierce has averaged 5.2 three-point attempts a game, making 2.1 for a 41 percent average. Comparatively, he only puts up 4.6 in losses, making 1.5 for a 33 percent average.
Since the beginning of February, the Celtics have only lost one game in which Pierce attempts six or more three-pointers (5-1). If Pierce continues to shoot over 40 percent from deep, he needs to get a little selfish and put the team on his shoulders more often.
Getting to the free-throw stripe is great—but daggers from 25 feet out not only deliver a greater blow, they also require less physical wear and tear.
Pierce shot only 31 percent from three in the 2012 playoffs, including 10-of-38 in their seven-game series loss to the Heat. He'll need a drastically improved stroke this postseason if he and the Celtics plan to contend for the Eastern Conference crown again. As former coach Rick Pitino might say, 'Rondo ain't walkin' through that door!'
Since New Year's Day, Pierce has shot 42 percent from the field in the Celtics' 20 games against playoff opponents. That's not bad, but it's also not the Paul Pierce that Boston Nation has come to know and love.
He has largely crushed sub-par and mediocre teams, with a collective .497 percentage since the All-Star break to prove it. But he needs to take better all-around shots in close games vs. top-notch teams, rather than force the envelope and come up short.
In 36 wins this season, Pierce has shot close to 45 percent. In 30 losses, he's a lowly 41 percent. As previously mentioned, his numbers beyond the arc look quite similar.
Of course, such factors largely stem from heightened minutes in the absence of Rondo and Sullinger. With a pinched nerve in his neck and a hurting set of 35-year-old legs, Pierce certainly isn't doing his body any favors logging 34 minutes a game.
But Pierce must prepare to play 40 minutes a night against conference foes like the Heat, Bulls and Knicks. These fast-paced teams play aggressive defense, and hustle up and down the floor. And the Pacers play the best defense in the league.
Pierce will once again have to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, delivering the kind of clutch moments that have shaped his career. If he can make these five things happen, the Boston Celtics once again have a good shot at competing for the Eastern Conference title.