ATLANTA, GA - MAY 01: Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics prepares to inbounds the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 1, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. 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. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
How could Paul Pierce put the short-handed Celtics on his back when they needed him most? Because few others have been there before as often as he has.
At this stage of his career, Paul Pierce can no longer do every night what he did against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. Call it aging. Call it unselfishness. Call it deferring to maintain proper team dynamics. You can call it whatever you want, really.
But whatever it is, it always happens for long enough to make people forget about him. And then, he puts together a game like he did Tuesday, leading the Celtics to an improbable win without Rajon Rondo, and everyone remembers again.
Forget Pierce's raw numbers -- 36 points, 14 rebounds, one Tebow -- and consider the situation. With Rondo out of the lineup, the Celtics had no chance unless Pierce went crazy. Doc Rivers admitted as much after the game. Few players would have both the confidence and the game to rise to the occasion in this spot, but Pierce did. More importantly, it's when Pierce scored the majority of his points that carried the Celtics to victory. With his Celtics needing a confidence boost early, Pierce hit his first four shots. With his Celtics needing someone to take them home, Pierce scored 13 points in the fourth quarter.
It was a performance rooted in the ménage à trois of skills, hard work and experience. Most NBA stars have some combination of the three, but few have them all in excess. The ones who do are seen as all-time greats. Perhaps it's time to cement Pierce's play in that group, if he's not there already.
Skills-wise, there isn't a play that Pierce can't make. He's not a speed demon, but he has such amazing body control and footwork that he can create good looks for himself even at age 34. Part of it is his strength and frame, but most of it comes from fundamentals honed by years and years in a gym alone. The footwork that allows him to reverse spin when his path his cut off; the pump fake that gets defenders off-balanced from the start; the shoulder motion that lets him push through defenders once he gets the smallest opening; those things didn't come to Pierce overnight. He just took his sweet jumper, his outstanding ball-handling and ability to finish around the rim, and he worked to refine the means by which he creates those shots.
That sounds pretty normal, though, at least as far as good scorers go. Many top stars have skills, and almost every NBA player works hard. It's the final element -- experience -- that sets him apart.
Pierce has been with the same franchise for 14 years, but he's been with many different teams. Early in his career, he was the star, but he also was burdened with being the savior. Success led to expectations, which led to more success, which ultimately led to disappointment, which led to a lot of learning experiences about how to seize the moment when it mattered most.
Then, as his roster got worse, he had to learn how to lift the play of others instead of just being a scorer. More frustration ensued, but he still banked essential information in his head about how to deal with double teams.
Finally, once Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived, Pierce had to learn how to step back and let others make the game easier. Thanks to Doc Rivers' psychological ploys and Rajon Rondo's developing point-guard wizardry, this transition proved easier than expected, but it was still a major transition.
That's three very distinct careers, all for the same franchise. Superstars often stay in the same city throughout their careers, but how many live through three distinct eras like Pierce did? Reggie Miller was essentially the same guy when he did so for the Pacers. Tim Duncan has altered his game, but that was mostly necessitated by his aging. Pierce, however, is the rare superstar who had to adjust his game to his roster just to continue being a superstar. Otherwise, he'd become irrelevant.
It's this wisdom that allows Pierce to rise to the occasion just when you think he can't do it anymore.