Paul Pierce passes out of a double-team in Saturday's Game 1 against the 76ers (Getty Images)
The truth is plain to see, as is The Truth. Boston Celtic legend Paul Pierce has not moved well since suffering a sprained knee in Game 4 of his team's first-round series against Atlanta. He suffered a sprained MCL, in fact, and though his next two outings against the Hawks were passable (17 points a contest on 43 percent shooting) his first two games against the Philadelphia 76ers have been downright awful.
Battling both the MCL sprain and all-world Sixer defender Andre Iguodala, Pierce has contributed just 21 points in two games while playing from the comforts of home. Worse, he's shooting just 25 percent from the floor, and he's turned it over seven times in two games. Worse than that is the way Pierce looks — stilted, clearly hobbled, seemingly incapable of making a difference for a Celtics team that has for over a decade relied on his step-back jumper and ability to get to the free-throw line. Much, much worse is the way the Celtics have ceded home-court advantage to the Sixers, and allowed Philadelphia insight into how to stop the Boston attack. As noted by 76er veteran Tony Battie, as quoted by ESPN's Jackie MacMullan:
"I know he's hurt," Battie said, "but Paul's definitely not going to ever admit that to anyone. You can see it. His shot is a little flat. His knee is bothering him, and he's had some foot problems, and his lift isn't 100 percent. But he's still the heart and soul of that team. We know Paul. We know he can get it going. I don't put it past him to come out with a Willis Reed-type Herculean effort in the next game."
Battie has been in the NBA since 1997, but even that was 27 years after Willis Reed's Herculean-type effort in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. So he may have forgotten that Reed, after taking a massive injection of painkillers to overcome a thigh injury that should have kept him out for months, only scored two baskets in his Herculean return to action. It was Walt Frazier's 36-point game that put New York over the top, and I'm not sure if you've noticed, but this year's Celtics don't exactly have a Frazier-type to go along with that Reed-type.
Instead, they have Rajon Rondo, passing up two layups in the first half of what would turn into a one-point loss in Game 2. Now, there's no way Rondo could have known his team would suffer a one-point loss in the first half, save for the fact that Rondo and his C's were 48 hours removed from a one-point win in Game 1, with the same cast and characters returning for both sides.
Instead, they have Ray Allen, a player that Rondo moodily looked off in the closing minutes of Game 2 twice in one possession, working through bone spurs but hardly able to keep the Celtic offense (one that, pre-injury, ranked amongst the NBA's worst) afloat.
Instead, they have a best-of-five series against a longtime combatant from Philadelphia, with three of the likely five to be played away from Boston.
Pierce contended to MacMullan that there is "nothing wrong with my knee" following Game 2, but sprained MCLs for any player tend to take weeks to recover from, and not eight days spent working in the every-other-day sked of an NBA playoff run. And sprained MCLs certainly don't mend any easier, Herculean efforts aside, for 34-year-old veterans that have put together over 1,100 combined regular-season and playoff contests.
And they certainly don't seem to get any better in the face of Andre Iguodala's withering defense. Even though we've all the respect in the world for Pierce, had he entered this series with a complete bill of health a 5-20 shooting mark from the floor to start the second round wouldn't have surprised us much considering AI's brilliance on the defensive end. Yes, Pierce shot well over 50 percent while averaging 17 points per game against the 76ers in the regular season, but this is Andre Iguodala we're talking about. Missing 15 of 20 shots can happen at any time. Much in the same way that when you put pizza on a bagel, you can have pizza anytime.
This is different, though. And you can tell from half a continent away, through your TV tubes. Pierce just isn't moving the same way, and though we're all amateur MDs at this point, all it takes is a passing knowledge of sportin' injuries to understand that a sprained MCL is no joke, and all it takes is a passing knowledge of Pierce's recent history to understand that his 34-year-old body has proven pretty resilient to the wearying nature of the years after NBA years.
He's 34, but he hasn't played like it until, oh, about a week and a half ago. Shockingly coinciding with the diagnosis of a sprained MCL.
If this comes off as flip, we apologize. And we don't expect Pierce to cop to the injury anytime soon. His team is in real danger, though. The Celtics have what it takes to take down the 76ers in a series of close games even with Pierce working off of one leg, but quite a bit has to go right for them to pull this off. Rondo has to cherish possessions. Kevin Garnett's have-to-be-perfect turnaround jumpers have to be, um, perfect. Ryan Hollins has to pull in more than 13 rebounds in 83 minutes of play at center, his current postseason rate.
This is Boston's new reality, because MCL sprains don't tend to go away in the midst of a schedule like this. It's something to remember, should Boston's season end faster than you expected it to, with Paul Pierce missing way more shots than he usually does.
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