BOSTON – Between the end of the worst season of his life, and the beginning of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, there had been a passage of time when Paul Pierce had word delivered to Danny Ainge: Get me help or get me out.
Pierce had waited for his chance to be one of those generational Boston sports icons, and the Celtics had stopped surrounding him with a fighting chance. It was getting late in his prime, late in his patience. He watched Tom Brady win his Super Bowls and David Ortiz his World Series, and he could take it no more. This town is the best in the world for winners, and just the worst for everyone else.
These forever New England stars are remembered for the most clutch championship performances. Pierce was the forgotten, dismissed talent, a victim of unfair circumstance when the city never had less tolerance for losing causes.
Suddenly now, Pierce returns for Game 6 in these NBA Finals on Tuesday within a victory of a championship, within a whisper of his wildest dreams. Maybe the regular season belonged to Kevin Garnett for the Celtics, but the playoffs belong to Pierce. History is closing fast.
Before the season, Boston debated on whether Pierce's number would ever dangle in the Garden rafters. Only champions hang in the Garden. The Basketball Hall of Fame hung in doubt, too. Now, his decade in Boston is so close to its validation. One more victory, a Finals MVP over Kobe Bryant, and Pierce, in the minds of most, will have made the improbable thirtysomething NBA journey as a player from good to great.
Whatever is standing in New England, Pierce has transformed his standing in the sport. There was that Game 7 against LeBron James – the Bird-Dominique game – when his 41 points elevated the Celtics into the conference finals. James never acted like losing out to Pierce was shameful, an embarrassment. "I always say, second to Kobe Bryant, he has some of the best footwork I've ever seen in a player," James said. "I love going against the best."
Perhaps his peers have always appreciated Pierce better than the public. People had stopped paying attention to the Celtics. He was one more player throwing up big numbers on a bad team. Now, Pierce could be remembered as the most explosive offensive player in the Celtics' history. Larry Bird was a better passer and shooter, but as a pure scorer, Pierce has no peer among the Celtics' greats.
No one would take him over LeBron and Kobe, but he has outplayed them in this postseason. Yes, he has a superior supporting cast, but let's face it: Few remembered that Pierce had so much game, with so much capacity for clutch. As much as anyone, Pierce won Game 1 and Game 4 of the Finals, and nearly stole Game 5 with 38 points and eight assists. He's been fantastic. He has taken this stage and shown it all.
"There's not a lot of players that have a well-rounded offensive game," Bryant said. "What I mean by that, he's got a good mid-range game, long ball, pull-up to the hoop, pull-up left, pull-up right. He has the whole package.
"Paul is one of my favorite players in the league."
Rest assured, LeBron and Kobe don't deliver false praise. Around the NBA, Pierce has never been so respected. Pierce has never had such presence, such game. The Celtics captain is on the cusp of a championship and a legacy looms in Boston. He goes in the rafters now, and maybe goes to Springfield, too. He's been here a decade – longer than Brady and Ortiz – and Pierce creeps closer and closer to taking his place in the pantheon of a clutch champion.
One more night, one more victory and finally it all belongs to Paul Pierce, a forever Celtic.