Like many Boston Celtics fans, I've been in denial ever since Paul Pierce was traded. Yes, Kevin Garnett was the C's heart and soul for the past six seasons, but Pierce was the one constant of my entire basketball life, at least when it came to watching the Celtics.
As a collegian, there have been two Boston athletes that have defined my childhood generation: Pierce and Tom Brady. However, their legacies couldn't be more different.
Ironically, Brady's career adheres much more to that of the prototypical Celtics superstar: the legend who won multiple championships and dominated his league for years. Pierce, at least by All-NBA measures, has only been one of the top 10 or 15 best players four different times. By Boston's lofty standards, that's much closer to Jo Jo White and Tommy Heinsohn than Larry Bird or Bill Russell.
And yet, Pierce is almost indisputably among the four or five greatest Celtics of all time, and it goes beyond the fact that he resuscitated Celtic Pride. Take a look back at his career, and you'll realize there was no other player in NBA history quite like him.
1998-2002: Bringing Boston Back to Life
It's not an exaggeration to say that Celtics basketball died along with the tragedies of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. When Pierce was drafted in 1998, the team's 12-year championship-less drought was already the longest in franchise history. Even with Pierce teamed up with Antoine Walker, front office bumblings submarined the team. Joe Johnson, Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker slipped through the C's hands for the likes of Joe Forte and Rodney Rogers.
The singular off-court incident that encapsulated Pierce's career occurred on September 25, 2000, when he was stabbed 11 times at a nightclub. The scars serve as a stark reminder of his mortality to this day, whereas Bird (nicknamed "Basketball Jesus") always felt a bit untouchable. And yet, though the incident happened a month before the season, Pierce still played all 82 games that year, exemplifying his toughness and unrelenting determination.
And yet, it was never really safe to believe in the Celtics, even at the beginning of their 2002 playoff run. His 46-point performance in the do-or-die first-round game against the Sixers was awe-inspiring, but his career still could have easily tilted in the statistically-oriented direction of Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter at that point.
And then, this happened:
Pierce's near-flawless performance in that fourth-quarter comeback was the turning point in his career. From then on, Celtics fans knew it was safe to trust No. 34. Even if he had not yet fully developed a complete offensive arsenal, Pierce was one of the few players who could carry his team to victory. So long as the Celtics had Pierce, they had a chance to win and thus a legitimate championship foundation.
2003-2007: The Lone Beacon of Hope
The Pierce-Walker tandem was never destined to last—even during that magical 2002 season, the two combined to shoot under 42 percent from the field. Sure enough, Walker only lasted one more season in Boston and essentially ate his way out of the league. In the mid-aughts, Pierce was really the only reason to watch the Celtics, unless you had a strange fetish for unathletic white players.
Encumbered by the surrounding incompetence, Pierce's efficiency dipped in this time period, specifically his shooting and turnover rate. As hard as it is to believe now, Pierce was once a dreadful high-volume shooter. Check out his shot chart in 2003-04, his sixth season in the league:
Yikes. Pierce's shooting is probably the most tangible evidence of all his intangible attributes like grit and resiliency, as he clearly could not have become one of the best pure scorers in NBA history without that drastic improvement.
There was a game in 2006, during another hapless season, when you could clearly see the light turn on for Pierce. Previously, I'd always cringed whenever I saw him pull up for yet another contested three-pointer. But when Pierce sunk this impossible dagger against the Wizards, it foreshadowed a plethora of future clutch bombs:
From then on, Celtics fans started expecting his shot to go in. Those gasps of anticipation we've all become accustomed to, the expectant hopes of thousands as Pierce shoots a three, were all possible because of the improvements he made while toiling for an anonymous team.
And yet, there was a serious chance Celtics fans would have had to admire his exploits from afar after Pierce's injury-plagued 2006-07 season. It appeared their disgruntled star had finally had enough, and who could blame him? Boston's future was a coin flip, the only certainty being that significant turnover was coming. Luckily, the right side of the coin came up.
2008-2013: The Payoff
When Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived, it marked the first time Pierce was playing with equal talents. Like Brady when he teamed up with Randy Moss, the results of the union revealed how great Pierce actually was.
For all the doubters Pierce has garnered, it's fitting that his signature moment from the Big Three era has received the most polarizing response. For what looked like a traumatic injury, it still makes no sense to this day how Pierce strolled back into the game five minutes later and hit two game-changing threes.
The response is unfortunate, because Pierce (and all his teammates) played through a multitude of injuries in the Big Three era. The dictionary has run out of words to describe the tenacity and mental toughness of the Celtics, even down to the last dying breaths. Celtics fans will probably harbor some regrets, since the one championship was probably at the low end of their hopes.
But for Pierce, someone whose stardom came with so much struggle, that was probably the most fitting conclusion. His career was more Jerry West and Dirk Nowitzki, someone who changed the game in his own right, but also pushed a greater talent to higher levels.
Nonetheless, it's hard to quantify a single title that has ever meant more to an individual player. If indeed it is Pierce's only title, then only West in 1972 and Dirk in 2011 have had similar moments. When it happened, then-ESPN writer Bill Simmons captured the feelings of Celtics fans perfectly:
We watched that guy grow up. We watched him become a man. We believed in him, we gave up on him, and we believed in him again...We spend so much time complaining about sports and being disappointed that our favorite players never end up being who we wanted them to be, but in Pierce's case, he became everything we wanted him to be. When he held up the Finals MVP trophy after the game and screamed to the crowd in delight, I don't think I've ever been happier for a Boston athlete. How many guys stick with a crummy franchise for 10 solid years, then get a chance to lead that same team to a championship? Does that EVER happen in sports anymore?
If Pierce had left after 2007, he probably would have latched onto a contender and had that moment somewhere else. It says quite a bit about his loyalty and determination that it happened in Boston.
The Big Picture
Critics said Pierce couldn't shoot, so he's gone out and climbed up to fifth all-time in three-pointers made (and climbing). Naysayers have questioned his toughness, which explains how he has played over 40,000 career minutes. Pierce's career has not been about living up to expectations, like LeBron James or Michael Jordan, but defying them.
Let's again revisit the Brady and Pierce comparisons. Like Larry Bird for those who grew up in the 1980s, Brady will always be the gold standard of Boston athletes in the 2000s (and perhaps the 2010s, the way things are going). There's no disputing who was the most successful or the most impressive.
But cheering for Pierce was undoubtedly more rewarding. With the Patriots, every championship-less year has felt empty, like an abject failure. However, since Garnett's knee injury in 2009, the Celtics have never been the favorite. They've taken Celtics fans farther than any of us could have expected, even if they have come up short every year. Their run is really an extension of Pierce's entire career.
When I think of Pierce's career, two isolations come up, each a mirror image of the other:
Regardless of the circumstances, Pierce always played with a swagger that made us and his teammates trust him. In that sense, "the Truth" could not have been a more fitting nickname.
Tom Brady will always carry the mantle for Boston athletes of the 2000s, and Larry Bird and Bill Russell were the most transcendent Celtics. But for the majority of this generation's Celtics fans, Paul Pierce will always be our favorite Celtic.