Paul Pierce closed off his career at TD Garden the way only The Truth could
There are times in basketball consumption where objective analysis is king. Reviewing data allows us to better understand the impact of players on the court, and make rational determinations about how valuable (or not) they are to their teams. Basketball is also an inherently human endeavor, however, and that means there is plenty of room for narrative, mythology, and above all else sentiment. The Boston Celtics game against the Clippers on Sunday afternoon was a time for the latter.
Barring an incredibly unexpected meeting between Boston and the Clippers in the NBA Finals, the game represented Paul Pierce’s final trip to the arena in which the majority of his formative years as a professional basketball player took place. Pierce will retire as the Celtics’ second all-time leading scorer, having played the fourth most games in franchise history, and logging the third most minutes since the team’s inception. He will be remembered as one of the greatest to ever play in Boston, an All-Star, and a leader to his younger teammates, and he deserves to be. He was all of those things during his career, but what makes Pierce so memorable is that he wasn’t always.
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The Celtics had a losing record for six of Pierce’s fifteen seasons. They struggled in his first three, while he found his footing in the NBA. As he developed, the team took off towards a string of playoff appearances from 2001-2005. Pierce was viewed as a somewhat dramatic scoring savant, lacking some of the requisite talent to lead his team to a championship. He embraced his role as the alpha male, and the league embraced him as an unquestioned star.
In the ‘05-06 and ‘06-07 seasons, the team was truly terrible, as Pierce struggled with real and potentially fictitious injuries. The local media labeled him a diva. That was likely unfair at the time, but Pierce was clearly frustrated with the level of talent on his team. It was an unhappy time for players and fans alike, and it bred discontent. The following year saw the union of the Big Three (the second one), and the team’s success was such that any bad blood was irrevocably reversed, at least from the broader public memory.
With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen on board, the Celtics had four straight years of incredible basketball, ranging from excellent to utterly dominant, including two finals appearances and a championship in the ‘07-’08 campaign. Pierce’s public image shifted from that of a note-quite-good-enough star to a devastating two-way player and lead offensive dog on one of the better teams to ever take the floor. It was a somewhat unexpected shift in the narrative arc of his career, but it highlights what was perhaps most endearing about Pierce- he never changed who he was- exceptionally talented, supremely confident, and loud.
The perception of those traits changed with team success, but the way Pierce played never truly altered. He was a diva and a whiner when the team was bad, but a passionate playful teammate when it was good. He was a selfish gunner who couldn’t carry a team in losses, and a fearless, clutch scorer when it won. He was a loser who had to go when the team dipped at the end of the Antoine Walker era, and an icon who should never leave when he was traded to Brooklyn as the Big Three broke up. Pierce played his game regardless.
He was endlessly, and possibly unconsciously, honest in his emotions. It was entirely clear when he was happy, sad, frustrated. He smiled and snarled his way to success, and he told his opponents all about it. There was, quite fittingly, a truth to Pierce that not every player possesses. From his performance on the court to his interaction with media and fans off of it, there was a realness to Pierce’s actions that was, at its worst, jarringly polarizing, and at its best, delightfully self-revelatory. Pierce shared himself with the Celtics’ fanbase and franchise in a way that many athletes fail to do, and for a sustained period of time that even fewer accomplish. Boston is grateful.
Media obsession with winning caused Pierce’s skills to be overlooked at some times and overstated at others, but the enduring image of him will be as one of the most beloved champions in Boston sports history. His reception on Sunday night was proof enough. Pierce was showered with love, and as he launched what will likely be his final shot in the Garden in the game’s waning minutes, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind if it was going in. Paul Pierce? In the Garden? There was no way he could miss. We knew it was going in, and he definitely knew it was going in. That’s just the Truth.