In 1998, when Paul Pierce was selected tenth in the NBA draft, it was looked upon by many Celtics fans as a short consolation prize for the unlucky drop of the lottery balls in 1997. A year later, Pierce, not Tim Duncan, would join Celtics star Antoine Walker, creating a dynamic offensive tandem for years to come. Averaging 16 points and 6 rebounds per game, Pierce was named to All-Rookie team in 1998. A team packed with three scoring options in Walker, Ron Mercer, and Pierce, but devoid of leadership had notched a disappointing record of 19-31. Celtics fans again looked upon Pierce as an inadequate substitute for losing Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA draft lottery.
The Celtics showed little improvements as the Rick Pitino era had resulted in disaster. It was not until 2002 that Pierce would lead the Celtics to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. Pierce and Walker would highlight their playoff march by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Nets. Unexpectedly, the 2002 Cinderella Celtics (49-33), had reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1988. Pierce, always considered to be Walker's wing-man, was starting to separate himself as the team's lone leader and, in game three of that series, he would begin to implant himself into Celtics lore by leading the team to the largest fourth quarter comeback in NBA playoff history.
From 2002-2006, the Celtics would situate themselves in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. During that timespan, the Celtics could not emerge from the Conference Semi-Finals and became recognized as a team destined for mediocrity. In 2006, Paul Pierce would quietly start to line his accomplishments up with former Celtics legends yet he was always overlooked as a the only Celtic superstar unable to lead the franchise to a championship.
The bottom fell out in 2007, as the Captain fell to a stress reaction in his foot in March. The Celtics would suffer additional injuries to Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen, and Wally Szczerbiak. In a season that ended in total despair, booing audiences and a 19-game losing streak, Pierce would start to believe that it was possible that he would never win a championship with the Celtics. Requesting a trade if help was not supplied, it looked as if the Pierce era in Boston may come to a close.
Danny Ainge, Director of Basketball Operations, answered Pierce's plea for reinforcements by adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A new era of Celtic domination launched in October of 2007. The Celtics would go on to win the championship in 2008 and Pierce would be named finals MVP. An accomplishment Pierce would relish as he was finally emerging from the pack of NBA stars as a future hall-of-famer.
It is a Celtic tradition for their best players to become anointed legends through winning championships. After a decade of frustrations, mediocre playoff appearances, embarrassing missteps, and losing seasons, Pierce had learned to achieve success through the experience of losing. He would now take his place among the Celtics' list of legendary captains.
Pierce now trails only Larry Bird and John Havlichek as the team's all-time leading scorers. He joins Hondo and Larry Legend as the team's most clutch performers. Perhaps Pierce's greatest accomplishment is the fans acceptance of Pierce's ranking with the legends of the past.
Through the 2009 regular season, Paul Pierce had made 29 game winning shots or free throws. He had trusted his teammates enough to assist them in game winning shots 10 times. Today, I am taking a trip down memory lane to cite some of Pierce's most impressive or emotional clutch performances that helped to land him among the Celtic greats.
Landing at No.5 is a clutch play that did not result in Pierce hitting the game winning shot. With the Celtics trailing 94-93 to the Magic with nine seconds remaining, Doc Rivers drew up a familiar play usually run between KG and Pierce. Garnett was unavailable due to a knee injury, so a second year forward out of LSU named Glen "Big Baby" Davis took his position in the play.
The closing game set was designed to isolate Pierce at the top of the key, using himself as the first option to pull up on the elbow and either hit the shot or draw the foul. The second option is for Ray Allen to be back-picked by Davis and roll to the corner for an open three. The last option is for a rolling Kevin Garnett, replaced by Davis, to spot up for a 15-18 footer.
As the play materialized, Allen never was swarmed by Orlando defenders and the back-pick never happened. Pierce was double-teamed and could have easily forced the shot. Instead, he found the unproven Davis rolling in KG's sneakers for the 17-footer. Davis nailed it, Pierce got the assist. More importantly, Pierce had the patience to watch the play develop and showed he had the confidence in unproven teammates to take the game winning shot.
In years past, Pierce would have forced the shot and no one would have blamed him for the loss had he missed. Instead, the experience of the past decade had proven valuable and Pierce made the right decision in finding Davis for the game winning shot.
In a duel reminiscent of Larry-Legend vs. Dominique Wilkens in 1988, LeBron James and Paul Pierce put on a show. Matching each other shot-for-shot through four quarters, the two superstars had a multitude of spectacular plays and clutch shots.
I am citing a free throw by Pierce with 7.9 seconds remaining and the Celtics up by two points as number four on my list. Yes, the free throw was very clutch but the emotions of the moment placed this play of the list.
After a tough seven game series against Atlanta, and the Cavs pushing the favored Celtics to seven games, the deciding game came down to the wire. A reluctant Boston crowd stood in silence as Pierce stepped to the line to make it a two possession game. As the first free throw left Pierce's finger tips the tension of the moment seemed to last for minutes. The ball hit the back rim and looked to be a sure miss. Resembling another clutch shot, launched by Don Nelson 39 years earlier, it bounced straight up in the air and went straight back through the net.
The Garden crown erupted as a smile ran across Pierce's face. The reaction from the players, the audience and Pierce drew comparisons to a shared exhale of six seasons of frustrating playoff eliminations.
After the game, Pierce credited the late Red Auerbach for helping direct the ball back into the bucket.
Truly one of the more emotional moments of the past two decades. This will remain on Celtics highlight reels for many years.
Though this is not a playoff moment, nor is it a game played by a contending Celtics team, their is no denying the drama or degree of difficulty of this buzzer-beating shot by Paul Pierce.
With the game clock at six seconds and the Celtics trailing by 1 point, Pierce took the ball at the top of the key. With no pick for Paul in sight, he dribbled to the three point line and launched a fade-away prayer over two Washington defenders and hit the miraculous shot with no time remaining on the clock.
In a rematch of the Celtics/Atlanta series from a season earlier, the media was hyping these two teams as the league's newest rivalry. After a closely played game, Atlanta, determined to avenge their game seven embarrassment of 2008, led by one point down the stretch. The Celtics had possession of the ball with 7.4 seconds remaining the clock.
Garnett handed the ball off to Pierce who dribbled in for a twenty-five foot fade-away jumper with his defender draped all over him. Pierce hit the shot for the win leaving .5 seconds on the clock.
The 2009 Eastern Conference first round series against the Bulls proved to be one of the most exciting early round series' in NBA history. The pivotal game five came down to the wire. Ben Gordon put Chicago up by two points with 16 seconds remaining as the Celtics lined up another clutch play for the Captain.
Pierce hit a spinning fade-away J from the elbow to force the game into OT. In overtime, Pierce continued his clutch performance. With the game tied and six seconds remaining, Pierce would again throw up a patented fade-away to win the game.
The Celtics went onto win in seven games but not before three more overtimes in game six.
After year's of struggling to gain the respect of Boston fans, Paul Pierce will undoubtedly be recognized as one of the greatest Celtics players of all time. He is arguably the greatest one on one player in Celtics history but his most crowning individual achievement may not come from stats or Finals MVP awards, it may come from his willingness to accept his role with the team, make late career alterations to his defensive game, sacrificing his own personal gains for the betterment of the team and, possibly most importantly, learning to trust his teammates in crucial moments of the game.
Pierce's career has been accentuated by numerous clutch plays and performances but the five I cite today are a display of unselfishness in crunch time and capped off by an assortment of clutch shots of the most difficult variety-- The Truth displaying the evolution of his game through five plays of the most exciting variety.