For the first eleven years of my life, the Celtics were a joke. A perennial loser, the franchise was still crushed from the Len Bias and Reggie Lewis tragedies–two events that I was too young to remember. Cheapskate Owner Paul Gaston ignored the fans, Coach Rick Pitino ran the team into the ground, and promising young forward Antoine Walker cared more about wiggling than winning. The proudest franchise in the NBA was being destroyed.
Then Paul Pierce changed everything. In the 2001-’02 season, Pierce became one of the League’s brightest stars and most clutch performers. He transformed the Celtics into a scrappy team with a penchant for big comebacks. In the fourth quarter in a game against the Pacers, he and Antoine began holding up the Pacers’ lead on their fingers, counting it down with every bucket until they were ahead. The Celtics were the ultimate never-say-die team led by the ultimate never-say-die player. You see, I was fated to be a Celtics fan from birth. The night before she went into labor with me, my mother stayed up all night making a 2.5′ by 6′ collage of Celtics greats from the 1980s. Newspaper clippings, photos, magazine pictures, even caricatures of the players are literally piled on top of each other to fill the entire area. Considering that the Internet did not yet exist and there was no other convenient or accessible database for all these photos, my mom must have spent months collecting the materials for this project. Still, though, I couldn’t comprehend what being a Celtics fan meant or recognize what a Celtics great was until the 2002 playoffs.
The Celtics sent the Sixers and Pistons packing in the first two rounds, facing the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The conference’s worst team the year before, the Nets traded Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd and did a worst-to-first turnaround. The Celtics managed to steal one of the first two games in New Jersey and came back to Boston with the series tied up. But they got run off the floor in the first three quarters of Game 3. They were losing by as much as 26 points and entered the final period trailing by 21 points, a fourth-quarter deficit no team had ever overcome in NBA history. Paul Pierce was settling for outside shots and the offense was stagnant. Between the third and fourth, Antoine Walker lit into the team, directing most of his fury at Paul Pierce. Pierce silently sat on the bench, and no one knew if he was listening or tuning his captain out. I thought the team was imploding, that the gregarious personality of Walker was finally psyching out Pierce, that the responsibility was too much for such a young player.
How wrong I was.
In a comeback that cannot be captured in words (which is why the Youtube clip starts off this article), Pierce took his game to another level. He attacked the basket like a man possessed. The Celtics scored 41 points in the quarter. I finally understood what being a Celtics fan meant. I finally understood what a Celtics great was. Paul Pierce took everyone watching that day to a different level. As Bill Simmons said in his recent podcast with Jemele Hill, everyone thought Pierce had made “the leap.”
The next game, though, as Bill Simmons also pointed out, everything Pierce had accomplished was for naught. Pierce missed the first of two free throws with seconds left in Game 4 and the Celtics down by 2. Pierce was no longer the king of crunchtime, and the Nets didn’t lose another game in the series.
As Simmon said, Pierce never really recovered from that free throw. The Celtics lost to the Nets again the next year. They lost to Indiana the next two years. The first Indiana series was a clean sweep and in the next one the Celtics got embarrassed in a home Game 7 blowout. In one of the games against Indiana, Pierce got ejected, took off his shirt, and did his post-game press conferences with his jaw wrapped in gauze. With Walker gone, Pierce struggled as the team’s leader. He always seemed to implode rather than explode when the game counted. As recently as this year’s Atlanta series his immaturity showed through, picking up a technical foul in the final minutes.
In yesterday afternoon’s pre-game show, the camera panned over the Celtics’ retired numbers hanging from the rafters. My friend Izak, also a die-hard Celts fan, was over and we talked about which players on the current team would get their numbers retired. Pierce was the most obvious, and he will definitely have his number retired. But it hurt us to put 34 on the same list as 33 and 6.
Jake: Pierce will be up there.
Izak: I guess.
Jake: He’s one of the greatest Celtics ever, statistically at least.
Izak: I guess statistically. But you can’t win a championship with him as your best player.
Forty-eight minutes of basketball later Pierce proved us wrong. Kendrick Perkins described the greatest Game 7 I’ve ever seen best. “Man, that was unbelievable,” Perkins said. “It was like a video game. You know how Paul and LeBron were going at it, man, that was like NBA 2K8, man. They were hitting some unbelievable shots. I was just happy to be a part of it.”
But the best shot Paul Pierce hit was not one of his dead-eye 15-footers or his spinning pull-ups. It was the free throw to make the game a two-possession game. With the game on the line, Pierce stepped to the line. The missed free throw against New Jersey must have been at the forefront of his mind. It was for me.
Pierce released it. It bounced high in the air, then came down and hit the rim. His shoulders sagged, and something died in his eyes. Then, as Pierce said after the game, the ghost of Red tipped the ball in.
Whatever died in his eyes seconds earlier, whatever died in his mind six years earlier, it was back. As a huge smile crossed his face and as he got dap from his teammates, Pierce transformed back into the precocious star who didn’t fear the clutch but thrived in it.
In the clip above, after his huge comeback, Pierce said, “In the fourth quarter I’m a whole different player, you know. The game’s on the line, and that’s where I think the great players step up.” Welcome to back to greatness, Paul.