Paul Pierce played his final NBA game yesterday, retiring after 19 seasons. The 10-time All-Star and 2008 NBA champion called it a career after the Clippers 104-91 Game 7 loss to the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the playoffs.
It’s easy to look at numbers and say that Pierce’s career was incredible. With over 26,397 points, only 14 men in the history the league scored more than he did. But to simply define his career with metrics and analytics would be a disservice to how remarkable he truly was.
Let’s start at the beginning.
So many people get hyped up nowadays on player rankings and who is doing what on the AAU circuit, but had you been slobbering over the best ninth and tenth graders in the country back in the early ’90s, you wouldn’t have even heard the name Paul Pierce.
He was cut from the varsity squad at Inglewood High School as a freshman and sophomore. But those disappointments fueled a desire that could not be extinguished.
As a senior, he was named a prestigious McDonald’s All-American, but was really an afterthought. That 1995 McDonald’s game centered around the five top players in the prep ranks at the time – Stephon Marbury, Kevin Garnett, Ron Mercer, Vince Carter and Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
Sam Okey, Albert Wright, Derek Hood, Ryan Roberson and Kris Clack were starters in that high school All-Star showcase, while Pierce was relegated to the bench.
But had you watched that game, you were privy to a preview of the future. Pierce might not have been considered a can’t miss prospect walking into the game, but he took advantage of the stage to announce that he would be taking a backseat to no one down the road.
Garnett won the MVP award, but Pierce scorched for 28 points off the bench.
If you missed Jacque Vaughn pushing the pill for the Kansas Jayhawks with Pierce’s devastating skill set on the wing, you truly missed out on something special. Pierce could destroy you in transition, while isolated on the perimeter and within the confines of the post due to his delectable mid-range game and limitless offensive repertoire.
He had the size, quickness and strength that projected toward him having an impact later on in the NBA. But he wasn’t just a guy who could run and jump, Pierce’s skill set was deliciously “old school”. He moved fluidly, had a soft jumper and seemed to understand the flow of the game better than most.
If you just began watching him during the last few seasons, you missed the first step that was faster than a lizard’s tongue back in the day, along with his explosive leaping ability when attacking the basket. He could stick the three-ball, but what made him unstoppable was that mid-range jumper. He played both ends of the court as well, fighting for rebounds and blocking shots.
The thing I loved about his game at Kansas, in addition to his ability to thrive in both a fast-paced and slow-it-down possession attack, was his mastery of the fundamentals. The highlight dunks pleased the crowd, but my man’s footwork, hands and body control was supreme.
He left Kansas after toying with the college comp as a junior and quickly emerged as one of the best and most dynamic players in the Eastern Conference as a young player with the Boston Celtics. Alone in the gym, he tossed up thousands of jumpers, whispering, “Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes, Dirk Nowitzki.” Those were the names of those picked ahead of him in the 1998 NBA draft.
As a 21-year-old rookie playing for Rick Pitino, Pierce averaged 16.5 points and 6.4 rebounds for a team that finished 19-31 during the strike-shortened 1999 season.
By his second year in the league, he was averaging 19.5 points per game and offering the rabid Celtics fan base some hope that the franchise might one day be able to return to its glory years.
And, then, during a night out at the Buzz Club near South Station in 2000, he was nearly murdered, stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back. After undergoing lung surgery, Pierce miraculously returned to play in all 82 of Boston’s games while averaging 25.3 points.
His athleticism, as it relates to the NBA competition, was not off the charts in the same way that it had been in college, but to watch Pierce operate and know what you were seeing was beyond delightful.
He wasn’t the biggest, fastest and strongest small forward in the league, but he was unstoppable. No one could keep him from getting to his sweet spots, often hypnotizing the man guarding him with feints, jab steps, head fakes, spins, up-and-under’s and step-backs that literally took them through the entire wash cycle.
And the man simply had that unquantifiable clutch gene. He was an utter destroyer.
In 2001, Shaq bestowed upon him the moniker that would forever follow him through the remainder of his NBA career.
After Pierce lit up the Lakers in March of 2001 to the tune of 42 points, while connecting on 13 of his 19 shots, Shaq pulled aside a reporter and offered up the following quote. “Take this down. My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherf****** truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is The Truth!”
My man was the king of the buzzer-beater and put sub-par teams on his back, carrying the Celtics back to respectability before the memorable 2008 championship run with Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
He gave us his Willis Reed moment in Game 1 of those Finals, leaving the court in a wheelchair after falling awkwardly on a teammate’s leg. He walked back onto the court to thunderous applause and scored 15 points in a decisive third quarter burst that swung the game in Boston’s favor.
In the 108-102 Game 2 victory, he gave the Lakers some serious work to the tune of 28 points. Despite the 103-98 loss in Game 5, his 38 points and eight assists were masterful. And in the series-clinching 131-92 blowout in Game 6, he dished out 10 assists en route to being named the Finals MVP.
After a series of two-year stints with the Nets, Wizards and Clippers respectively, Pierce has officially walked off into the sunset, leaving us with a first-ballot Hall of Fame career that should be cherished and appreciated for many years to come.
The Truth, the Whole Truth and nothing but The Truth, Paul Pierce was all of that.
And then some.