First of all, let me say this – Paul Pierce stole Earl Monroe’s nickname.
Yeah, forget “The Pearl.” You remember the talented Mr. Monroe – the guy Jesus Shuttlesworth was named for in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.” You remember that scene – Denzel and Ray Allen on the boardwalk in Coney Island, Ray mad as hell at his deadbeat, murdering dad, and Denzel trying to placate his son by telling him stories about how he was named. “They called him Jesus, because he was the Truth,” said Jake Shuttlesworth, using his boy’s namesake in a futile attempt to heal the rift between the two.
Paul Pierce is not “The Truth.”
Now believe me, I can appreciate the torment that Celtics fans have gone through in recent years. Rick Pitino is a fate that I wouldn’t wish on anyone other than the Knicks, and one can only imagine the anguish they felt at watching their hallowed franchise slide down the twisty slide into the jungle gym of mediocrity. I mean, “Celtic Pride” used to mean something – until Damon Wayans and Daniel Stern got their hands on it, at least.
With all that said, all this recent hyping of Paul Pierce as the second coming of Larry Legend and Earl the Pearl has just been a little too much for this objective fan to take. It’s everywhere in the New England media these days, and even accounting for the traditional Beantown inferiority complex, it has clearly crossed the line from endearingly optimistic to patently excessive. You’ve got Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy yapping incessantly in the Globe, Michael Gee making like a junior-high cheerleader in the Herald and Peter May parroting all of them on ESPN.com.
Perhaps the most offensive take on Pierce’s supposed emergence as a “superstar” has been given by the normally-reliable Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy on ESPN.com’s Page 2. Everybody knows that Simmons is a die-hard Celtics partisan, so it comes as no shock that he’s fallen hard for the dashing number 34 in green and white, practically gushing over the combination of Pierce and Antoine Walker (another Boston “star” whose massive failings seem to escape Simmons), and picking the Celts to go all the way to the NBA finals. Little surprise here.
The problem for me, again, is “The Truth” label that has somehow been attached to the good Mr. Pierce. The Sports Guy actually had the nerve, in a recent column, to call it “the best nickname in the NBA,” “eclipsing,” as he saw it, Allen Iverson’s trademark call-sign as the premier handle in the league. This, no less, from a guy who consistently cites in his work a player named Glenn “I Stole Antoine Carr’s Nickname” Robinson – “The Big Dog,” for Simmons, is the workman-like Carr’s appellation for life.
So the double standard for the ridiculously over-hyped Pierce, then, is even harder to swallow. I’ll admit it – Pierce is an excellent player, a threat from all areas of the court, an absolutely nasty shooter, and an above-average rebounder for a two-guard. He plays with passion every night, and does have the sort of smoothness to his game that all fans of the sport can appreciate. An all-star? Clearly.
Problem is, “smoothness” only gets you so far in the cutthroat NBA post-season. As the playoffs progress, however, you’re going to start seeing Pierce exposed for the fraud he is. The farther into May and June a team goes, the more the play of a team’s superstar matters for survival. We’re not talking about the high caliber of all-around play that Paul possesses, either – we’re talking about flat-out explosiveness and drive, the ability of a player to carry a team on his shoulders and win games on his lonesome. They say the offense wins games, but defense wins championships, and the Celtics are just going to keep seeing better defenses from here on out. Pierce dropped 46 against the Sixers in Game Five of the first round – he scored 17 on Sunday afternoon against Michael Curry of the Pistons, no more than an above-average defender.
As sad as it is, the “explosiveness” of Pierce – or lack thereof – is the quality that’s going to damn the Celtics to defeat in these later playoff rounds. He just doesn’t have it – you could read it from the reactions of Boston fans during the Detroit game when Jerry Stackhouse would scorch the defense and lay down a blistering dunk. “Stack’s a player,” murmured Erik Tomberg ’04, unused to the high-flying power that the UNC grad brings to the Detroit lineup. Lord knows ‘Toine isn’t explosive, and Pierce may be just below the threshold for what a playoff-quality guard needs to succeed. This time, however, “The Truth” doesn’t have Clyde Frazier watching his back.
This isn’t the regular season. You don’t get any respite from the quality opponents. No night off from having Kobe all over you like lice on Morgan West, no respite from the inhuman form of Ben Wallace, who seems to be some sort of combination of Stretch Armstrong and the Predator. This is playoff ball, and as unhappy as this may make Boston fans, Pierce just isn’t going to hack it – and that’s the truth. Pistons in five. (Note: Ryan Driscoll ’04 assisted in the writing of this column).