|MIP: Most Indispensable Player||12.15.08 at 9:38 pm ET|
Paul Pierce had been knocked down, kneed, elbowed and the recipient of more than one collision already when his knee banged into Mehmet Okur. It was his left knee, not the one he injured against the Lakers in the Finals, and it was straight, as in prone for a devastating knee injury.
Pierce was able to bend his knee a bit before Okur went crashing into him, and he avoided disaster. But it still hurt like hell, and when he went down the Garden was deathly quiet. His teammates left the bench en masse to check on Pierce and Big Baby Davis and Leon Powe had to help him get back to the locker room.
The crowd chanted M-V-P as Pierce made his way off the court, but they should have been chanting M-I-P as in, Most Indispensable Player.
“It’s a little tender,” Pierce said after his club dispatched the Jazz, 100-91. “The knee kind of buckled. It should be all right.”
That’s good news, obviously, for the Celtics, because if there’s one player on the roster they can’t afford to lose, it’s Pierce.
That’s a funny statement to make when you look at what Rajon Rondo has done this year–and he turned in another gem against Deron Williams–and when you consider that Kevin Garnett is well, Kevin Garnett. But behind Pierce on the small forward depth chart is Tony Allen, who is not, in fact, a small forward, and Brian Scalabrine, who is a perfect 10th Man, but not exactly the guy you want knocking heads with Ron Artest or LeBron James for 38 minutes a night.
It’s also funny when you look at Pierce’s shooting numbers. Simply put, Pierce has not shot the ball well this season. His field goal percentage has hovered around 40 percent, the lowest of his career, and his 3-point shooting is a tick off (35 percent) his career average of 36 percent.
But Pierce is indispensable because he has become a player who can be great even when he’s not scoring at a high level. Take the simple act of making free throws, for instance, where he is shooting 84 percent. Pierce is getting to the line at a higher rate than he did last year, which is helping him keep his scoring average at around 18 a game.
That’s important because while his shot hasn’t been falling at his normal rate, he is shooting less and turning it over less than his career averages, proof that he is not forcing the issue in an effort to get himself going. Even more than last year, Pierce has been content to take his offense as it comes and let others, particularly Ray Allen, have the scoring glory.
Even when he is on the floor with the four mainstays off the bench, Pierce hasn’t imposed his strong personality on the proceedings. Before his knee scare, Pierce had logged 43 minutes and taken just 13 shots, none of them 3-pointers. Think about that for a second and let it roll around in your head. He remains the Celtics’ best one-on-one option. The guy you want to have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line–as he proved against Toronto and Atlanta back in early November. Yet he is perfectly comfortable to not be The Man.
As great as Garnett is, Pierce’s willingness to defer to others, and take the reins when necessary, are the principal reasons the Celtics have worked offensively.
Then there’s the defense.
Oct. 28 LeBron James: 9-for-21, 22 points
Nov. 4 Ron Arrest: 3-for-16, 15 points
Nov. 14 Carmelo Anthony: 8-for-19, 18 points
Dec. 12: Peja Stojakovic: 1-for-6, 2 points
Nov. 1, Dec. 3, Dec. 7 Danny Granger: 21-for-55
There are all kinds of ways to measure toughness, particularly on the defensive end. Garnett is intimidating. Kendrick Perkins is, to coin a phrase, a beast. But Pierce gives the Celtics an edge, a street-tough nastiness that doesn’t back down.
This was Utah coach Jerry Sloan, one of the toughest SOB’s the NBA has ever seen, after last night’s game:
“It looked like we were scared to play against them to start the ballgame. Looked like we wanted to play out on the perimeter and take jump shots. They’re awfully hard to get the ball inside on, because they’re an excellent defensive team and they knock you around a bit. Our guys wanted to stay outside because I think they were afraid they’d get hurt. They had us intimidated a great deal and had us out on the perimeter.”
When Jerry Sloan says that his team was intimidated you have to take note.
People might not like the comparison, but the Celtics are an awful lot like the Detroit Pistons of the late 80′s, swaggering, intimidating and defense-first. They beat you up and then they tell you about it. All that went away for the Pistons when they traded Rick Mahorn, who was legitimately scary as hell. The Celtics have more than their share of tough guys, but Pierce is the one no one outside of Quentin Richardson wants to mess with.
He has been the Captain for a long time now, but this is truly his team now. The Celtics are in his image: tough, intimidating and just a little bit dangerous.