Basketball can create the strangest of moments, as we've seen that throughout the years. However, in recent memory, none has peaked the bizarre meter quite as much as Paul Pierce's "Wheelchair Game."
In the first NBA Finals game of his career, Pierce and the Boston Celtics found themselves staring across at a familiar foe. The Los Angeles Lakers were in town to kick off yet another NBA Finals between the two teams, albeit the first meeting between the two since 1987.
Everything was going rather normally. Los Angeles came into the third quarter up 51-46.
Then Pierce took control of the game.
He scored on three straight possessions and then picked up an assist on the next two, racking up eight points in just a minute. Some ugly back-and-forth went by before the Lakers retook the lead, and then things started to get really strange.
Kendrick Perkins slammed into Pierce after a half-assed attempt to block a baseline shot from Kobe Bryant, and Pierce sprawled out onto the ground.
As he lay clutching his knee, the only audible noise was 20,000 Bostonians gasping in horror as their NBA Finals dreams were flushed down the toilet. From there, it's uneasy murmurs and general silence.
His team rushed over to check on him, and it didn't take long before a handful of his teammates started to pick him up and carry him off in the most unceremonious way possible.
Eventually we saw a clip of Pierce in a wheelchair being taken to the locker room as the crowd watched gloomily, only to reemerge just a few minutes later hopping and ready to play.
Pierce knocked down two quick three-pointers with a minute to go in the quarter, and the Celtics went on to win Game 1 and ultimately the series.
While it's hard to put together an argument that says Pierce went down and was wheeled off on purpose, it still doesn't do much for his image, especially when you look at how things went down.
Pierce took the hit at the 6:48 mark in the third quarter, at which point he was obviously in some kind of pain.
His teammates carried him off like a rag doll, looking almost identical to the Flint Tropics carrying Jackie Moon to the back in Semi-Pro, and they put him into a wheelchair. Everyone suspected the worst, there was no news of what went wrong other than the fact that he was holding his right knee and theories ran wild.
That lasted about the length of a commercial break and three possessions. Pierce checked back in at the 5:03 mark in the third quarter, spending less than two minutes of actual game time off the court.
When he came back, there was no hobble, no limp, not even a slight cringe creeping its way across his face. In fact, he seemed more rejuvenated than anything.
After the game, it came out that Celtics team doctor Brian McKeon called for the wheelchair and had Pierce carried off the floor, but the damage had been done.
What was being heralded in Boston as Pierce's Willis Reed moment was being jeered across the nation as one of the most ridiculously feigned injuries of the season.
For what it's worth, ESPN columnist and notorious Boston homer Bill Simmons even admitted that if the shoe were on the other foot and Kobe would have been carted off, he would be berating him just as much.
If you're a Lakers fan, I fully support your right to be cynical about Pierce's injury and return. If the roles were reversed, and this were Kobe, I would have taken 35 "He was playing the injury up just for the Willis comeback!" potshots at him by now.
There are two hard and fast conclusions that we can draw all these years later.
First, Pierce was definitely hurt in that moment. There would be no reason for Pierce to willingly be removed from such a close game, just with the hope that his hilariously timely return would will his team to a victory.
Second, if you're one of those still touting it as a Willis Reed moment, you're just as delusional as the people calling Pierce a faker. He was out of the game for less than two minutes. There was obviously some overt precaution taking place, and he definitely wasn't playing with a torn thigh muscle like Willis Reed did.
What's the whole story about what really happened? Perhaps we will never know the entire truth.
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