Toronto Raptors Shutting Down Paul Pierce Key to First-Round Series Win

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2014

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 22: Paul Pierce #34 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots a free throw in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 22, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In Game 1, Paul Pierce scored nine of his 15 points in the final three minutes, looking every bit the clutch performer that carried the Boston Celtics when tight games were on the line. After sinking a turnaround jumper to put the Brooklyn Nets up seven, he exclaimed, "That's why they got me here!"

There is indeed some Truth to that.

But it's also true that Pierce isn't taking over games like he used to. The Toronto Raptors exposed as much in Game 2, holding him to just seven points on 2-for-11 shooting. 

That kind of performance is certainly not why the Nets acquired Pierce. The expectation may not be for him to score 25 points a game, but he does have to do something. The closing role seems to be a fitting one, but that still requires some semblance of efficient production.

Maybe Pierce just had an off game. Maybe he needed a couple of extra touches down the stretch.

But the Raptors made a dint, and, in the process, they've also established part of the formula for beating Brooklyn. Don't let Pierce beat you.

Now, keep in mind that, according to Pierce, the Raptors should be helpless on this account. According to Pierce, he has a little something you might call the "clutch gene." That's how he explained it after Game 1 according to The Canadian Press (via The StarPhoenix):

'I think it’s just in the DNA,' [Pierce] said. 'Everybody don’t have it, everybody’s not born with it. Can’t buy it at Costco or Walgreens. It’s in the DNA.'

Asked how he’s sustained his intensity, the perennial all-star and 16-year NBA veteran replied: 'Like I said, it’s in the DNA. There’s nothing I can do to let it go, I can’t lose it, I can’t break it. It’s in there, it’s in there.'

Okay, but maybe it's not always in there. It didn't seem to be in there during Game 2, a close, winnable contest by any metric. It wasn't there when his go-ahead three-pointer late in the fourth quarter rimmed out.

Instead, the clutch gene belonged to Toronto's DeMar DeRozan in Game 2. He scored 17 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter, looking more like the Paul Pierce of old than Paul Pierce.

Pierce had a resurgent second half of the season once the Nets started playing him from the 4-spot. The logic is pretty sound. Pierce forces bigger power forwards to leave the paint, vacating their comfort zones and staying glued to the perimeter. The minute they try to help inside, Pierce has daylight.

The problem is that the Raptors have a pretty mobile power forward in Amir Johnson. You don't hear his name much, but he can move around the floor and stay relatively glued to Pierce.

Toronto also has to rotate quickly and intelligently, ensuring there's always someone to put a hand in Pierce's face. With long swingmen like DeRozan and Terrence Ross, that should be doable too. In theory, the Raptors have the pieces to keep Pierce under control. 

And in practice, that's exactly what they did during Game 2.

That's important to the Raptors' series hopes for a couple of reasons.

First, Pierce is one of Brooklyn's three best scoring options alongside Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. Something has to give. Toronto will be in trouble if each of Brooklyn's "Big 3" are scoring in the 20-point range. 

Second, Pierce is especially dangerous in fourth quarters. Given that Game 2 probably won't be the last close game between these two clubs, it's imperative that the Raptors disrupt Pierce's ability to close games.

Finally, there's a pretty strong correlation between Pierce performing well and the Nets winning. In 42 regular-season wins, he averaged 13.9 points as opposed to the 12.9 he put up in 33 losses. The even bigger difference was field-goal percentage. Pierce made 49 percent of his baskets in wins, but less than 41 percent in losses.

When Pierce isn't shooting the ball efficiently, the Nets are in trouble.

At its core, Brooklyn is a jump-shooting team, and Pierce arguably has its best jumper when he's clicking. When he's not, the Nets become more one-dimensional, more dependent on Johnson and Williams to make something happen off the dribble.

That will work some of the time, but it's not a formula for success.

Pierce's offensive is also about more than just scoring points. When he's hitting, it keeps the defense extra honest. It forces guys like Amir Johnson to leave the paint in a hurry. When Pierce isn't hitting, Toronto can afford to focus its attention on stopping penetration. In short, Pierce is key to Brooklyn's spacing and all the advantages that spacing creates.

The more he struggles, the less he can deter defenders from clogging the paint and closing up lanes. The spacing goes away.

The big key is keeping him from getting in a rhythm, rushing him off the three-point line early and forcing him to put the ball on the floor. At this point in his career, Pierce isn't going to beat the Raptors' young defenders off the dribble. They should attack him relentlessly early in the game and force him to either pass the ball or take a bad shot.

In short, they should put this whole DNA. thing to the test. Chances are Pierce is actually like most shooters. He shoots better after he's seen the ball go in a couple of times. The more Toronto can do to prevent those first couple of makes, the better off they'll be in fourth quarters.

And in the series.