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The Captain and the Truth

02.01.09 at 3:52 pm ET

There were about four and a half minutes left Sunday when a guy in the loge seats yelled out, “All right, Paul. Time to take ov-ah.” It wasn’t a command, and it wasn’t even a plea. It was more of a statement of fact. Of course Paul Pierce would take over because that is what Paul Pierce does in situations like this.

No Kevin Garnett. An 18-point halftime lead that had become five. What else would he do?

The Timberwolves had gone small in an effort to get back into the game which left Randy Foye singled up on Pierce. In retrospect, this may have been a miscalculation. (Click here for a recap of the Celtics‘ 109-101 win over the Wolves.)

First Pierce cut into the lane where he muscled up a shot and got two free throws. Next he backed Foye down from the elbow, slowly, deliberately, and then whoosh, he hit him with a spin move, a lay-up and a free throw makes three. For the capper, Pierce simply stared Foye down and drained a 15-footer right in his face.

Game over. Drive home safely.

“I just try to give the game what it needs,” Pierce said after giving the game 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists. “Today, I thought it needed my scoring. I don’t expect to go out and score 30 points a night. When Kevin’s out there we play through him.”

Yeah, but. It must be nice to know you can still do it when you have to, right?

“You go off (like that) and you say, ‘I still got it,'” Pierce said with a wide grin. “Even at 31 (years old).

It’s not that easy, of course. It can’t be. If it was, every Tom, Dirk and Sebastian would do it.

“He didn’t get a lot of credit the other night against Detroit, but I thought he won that game for us in the stretch where he was the one guy out there with the bench and he didn’t score a point,” Doc Rivers said. “His play led to scores, and he knew what he was doing. He was trying to suck guys in and get everybody shots. When he’s the one guy with the second unit he does that as well as anybody.

“And then,” Rivers continued, “he can sense when we need a bucket and he needs to take over games. Clearly you have to have the ability to do that. I think a lot of guys think they can, but very few actually can, and Paul does a great job with that.”

Pierce has reached an interesting stage in his career. He has proven, on the game’s biggest stage, that he is one of the great players in the world. There was never any doubt, for example, that Pierce would make the All-Star team this year even though a superficial look at his numbers would suggest that he is not nearly as productive as he has been throughout his career. His scoring average, to cite the obvious, is the lowest it has been since his rookie season.

A quick look at his last five games tells a disjointed tale.

Orlando: 27 points, 10 rebounds four assists

Dallas: Eight points, five rebounds, one assist

Sacramento: Eight points (1-for-5 shooting), three rebounds, eight assists

Detroit: 20 points, four rebounds, five assists

Minnesota: 36 points, eight rebounds, six assists

It is exactly because Pierce can go an entire game in which he makes one shot and then turn around and effortlessly drop 36 a few days later when his team is missing one of its key players that he has become so great. He has found the last few years the one thing that he has always wanted back from the game: respect.

Early in his professional life he would tick off the names of the teams that passed over him in the 1998 draft and the players they chose while knocking down shots in practice. As the names of the recently departed shuffle off to retirement, or inactivity–Michael Olowokandi, Raef LaFrentz, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams–it becomes clear that whatever the issue was on Draft Day had more to do with bad scouting than with Pierce’s ability or attitude.

He has made seven All-Star teams, but never as a starter. He has never finished in the Top 10 in the MVP balloting and never been voted higher than Third-Team All-NBA, which he has accomplished exactly three times. He was, as he said, “A classic example of a great player stuck on a bad team.” Pierce took a lot of heat for that statement, but in retrospect he was absolutely correct.

Great players are supposed to take all the abuse and make all the shots, but more than that, great players are supposed to lift up their teammates and make them better than they really are. There’s a lot of evidence out there to suggest that that particular notion is entirely bogus. (Would James Worthy and Kevin McHale have been Hall of Famers if they hadn’t played with Magic and Larry? The way you answer the hypothetical reveals how you feel about that argument.)

What we have with Paul Pierce in 2009 is a player who is entirely at peace with himself and his game. We have a player fully capable of going off for 30+ whenever the situation calls for it, and one who is content to provide for others whenever it is not.

That’s the only truth that matters for the Captain.

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