“Paul’s not flashy. I don’t even know how Paul scores sometimes. He doesn’t look like he’s that quick, but he is. He just has a gift — he’s a professional scorer.” –Doc Rivers
On Tuesday, the Boston Celtics reset their Conference Quarterfinal matchup with the Atlanta Hawks to zero on the strength of a vintage “toolbox” game from Man of A Thousand Faces Paul Pierce. The Captain poured in 36 points, finding the majority at the end of long chains of jab steps, step-backs, cross-overs, front- and back-shoulder spins and hesitation moves, on the way to an 87-80 Celtics victory.
There are a myriad of basketball player types: there are artists (Ricky Rubio) and wizards (Rajon Rondo). There are surgeons (Steve Nash) and assassins (Kobe Bryant). There are sparkplugs (J.J. Barea), garbage men (Brian Cardinal) and enforcers (Kendrick Perkins). Paul Pierce is a craftsman. Never known for eye-popping speed, hops or strength, he has spent his NBA career honing his ability to build complex mega-moves out of varying combinations of precisely-executed micro-moves of the type described above. Along the way, as whatever explosiveness he’s ever had has abated, he’s continuously worked to refine his shooting touch. Just last year, he set career-highs in field goal percentage (49.7%) and free throw percentage (86.0%). The year prior, he set a career-high in three-point percentage (41.4%).
Pierce infuses the fine, Inglewood craftsmanship he builds his game around with a healthy dose of guile. He perfected the dubious art of up-faking and shooting into contact from the mid-range and beyond during the rocky mid-aughts, when he was not just the Celtics’ best scoring option, but often their only. It was during these years that Paul Pierce would develop into what Doc Rivers termed “a professional scorer” – a player equipped with both the physical tools to put the ball in the basket, and a master-level understanding of how to play the games within the game to get it done.
Case in point: Friday night’s 90-84 overtime victory. On Tuesday, Pierce looked sharp from the get-go, connecting on his first four shots before going on to 12-26 from the field and 11-13 from the line. He threw in a little bit of everything: lay-ups and dunks, long twos, mid-range jumpers, and one dagger three. On Friday, he looked off-rhythm and out of sync, failing to connect on a field goal until the 1:54 mark in the second quarter. He finished the night 3-12 from the field, hitting one long two, one corner three and one jumper from the free throw line.
And yet, once again, the Captain led his team in scoring with 21 points. Though his shot wasn’t falling, he managed to put forth an effort that, along with Kevin Garnett’s 20 points and 13 rebounds and Rajon Rondo’s seventh career postseason triple-double, drove the Celtics to a 2-1 series lead. Pierce did it by supplementing his three made field goals with seven trips to the free throw line, where he went 14-14.
On Thursday, we looked at the “toolbox” game and tried to describe the component micro-moves that made up Pierce’s bucket-getting mega-moves. Today, let’s take a look at those seven trips to the free throw line.
First Quarter, 10:45. Pierce scores the first points of the game off a missed bunny from Jeff Teague. Kevin Garnett collects the rebound and outlets to Pierce, who pushes transition in his typical loping gait. Across the half-court line, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Kirk Hinrich stand in a line above the arc.
As Pierce nears the NBA Playoffs logo above the arc (see below), he slows to a near stop as his teammates catch up behind him. Joe Johnson keys in on Pierce, bending at the knees and angling forward to defend. With the ball in his left hand, Pierce feints to the right, then drives past Johnson, getting all the way in to the semi-circle for a shot at a lay-in. Off the blow-by, Williams drops down to defend the rim and fouls him body-to-body as he goes up for the shot.
Pierce lets out a small yelp as the foul is committed, a tapas-sized version of the full-throated “AAAAAAYYYYYYYY!” we’ve all come to know and love over the years.
Pierce collects the ball from the referee then dribbles it three times, staring intently into the floor as he does so. Off the third bounce, he gathers it into his hands and spins it before bending at the knees and leaning forward slightly. He holds the ball below his waist and tilts his head upward, mouth slightly ajar as he gazes at the rim. His right shoulder and hip are angled toward the baseline. His right knee is bent inward, toward the sideline. He bobs in place for a moment, then raises his arms and snaps his wrist sharply, pushing the ball toward the rim on an arc.
He will repeat this action with near-zero variation 13 more times today, and countless more in the days going forward.
Second Quarter, 6:16. With Rajon Rondo holding the ball just off the top of the key, Pierce loses Marvin Williams around a Kevin Garnett screen on his way from the wing to the elbow. Rondo finds him with a sharp pass as he carries forward into the paint to be met by Erick Dampier, who is listed at 265 pounds – about four-fifths of his apparent actual weight.
Pierce takes two steps forward, then angles to his left, making sure to clip off of Dampier’s meaty hip as he goes up for the runner. He lets out another small yelp as he makes contact.
Second Quarter, 4:18. With the score tied at 30, Pierce blocks Joe Johnson’s elbow jumper into the hands of Rajon Rondo. In transition, Rondo finds Pierce at the sideline. Everyone is in the half-court now, but no one is in the lane, and the Hawks are not set to defend. Off the catch, Pierce drives shoulder-first at Joe Johnson, who steps into the contact and is called for a blocking foul.
This puts the Hawks into the penalty, getting Pierce two shots.
Second Quarter, 0:30. With 42 seconds to play in the half, Tracy McGrady goes up for a three-pointer and comes down on Rajon Rondo’s foot. He collapses in a heap and grabs at his ankle, rolling on the floor in great pain.
Avery Bradley collects the rebound and pushes it forward. At the other end of the floor, the Celtics have a five-on-four advantage. Bradley finds Paul Pierce at the top of the key. Kirk Hinrich picks him up immediately and fouls him to stop play. Once Hinrich places his hands on him, Pierce flings the ball at the hoop from beyond the arc, hoping to net three free throw attempts. Alas, the officials give him just the two.
Third Quarter, 5:45. For the first time this evening, we’re treated to the Paul Pierce Special. Set up on the wing in a one-on-one with Tracy McGrady, Pierce slowly dribbles forward. He throws a sharp jab-step toward the paint, steps back and up-fakes. McGrady bites, leaping high into the air as Pierce pulls the ball back and waits for his man to alight. McGrady gets the whistle as he lands squarely on Pierce’s shoulder, just before the Captain puts up the shot.
Third Quarter, 3:04. At the elbow, Pierce engages with Joe Johnson, bumping him with his shoulder, back and rear end as he drifts to a spot just inside the extended elbow. Brandon Bass gets him the ball and clears out, setting up an iso. Pierce squares up to Johnson and crouches down, his feet planted wide beyond his shoulders. He twitches his shoulders then bursts forward, driving baseline and letting out a brusque “AY!” as he passes Johnson. Once past, he is greeted at the rim by Dampier, who fouls him on the contest.
At this point, Pierce is 12-12 from the line. The Atlanta Hawks are 5-6.
Third Quarter, 0:53. With the score knotted at 56, Jeff Teague drives at the hoop and attempts a pass to a diving Ivan Johnson. Brandon Bass deflects the pass, which kicks off a brief scrum in which Johnson attempts to corral the ball whilst surrounded by Pierce, Rondo and Bass. Johnson appears to finally gain control, when Rondo punches the ball away and into the hands of Paul Pierce.
Pierce shoves the ball back to Rondo, kicking off a transition run. The Hawks have two players filling the lane with Teague rapidly approaching to join them as the ball advances. Rondo reaches the arc and whips a cross-court bounce pass to Pierce, who collects it in stride at the wing. Pierce finds an extra gear on his way to the basket, where he is fouled hard by Teague as he goes up for the lay-in.
Everyone in the crowd is fired up by the play, except for this one guy, who sure is bummed out about something.
On his own, Pierce made two more free throws than the Hawks did as a team. His 14 were the most he’s made without missing since a 14-14 night against the Orlando Magic on May 8, 2009 — nearly three years ago to the day.