LOS ANGELES – His legs bounced on his toes, a wave of anxious energy coursing through him. Fourth quarter, a playoff game still in doubt, and one of the most clutch players of this generation sat at the front end of the Clippers bench, adjusting his headband, willing his coach to call his number. Doc Rivers almost did, too. Few understand the greatness of Paul Pierce more than Rivers, the ex-Celtics coach who watched Pierce routinely strap Boston to his back and carry the team to improbable victories. To Rivers, playing Pierce in those situations is instinctive.
"I almost did it," Rivers told The Vertical. "A guy like Paul, you always want to use him."
He didn't, and after 18 seasons, 159 playoff games, two Finals appearances and one championship, Pierce broke new ground: a postseason DNP-CD. It was hardly surprising; Pierce played 11 uneventful minutes in Game 1, a continuation of a steadily declining role. Pierce averaged just 18.1 minutes per game this season, scoring 6.1 points and connecting on 36.3 percent of his shots, all career lows. He is still able to summon his skills – 18 points in a narrow win over Utah earlier this month – just far less frequently.
Late Wednesday night, Pierce sat in front of his locker, dressing quickly. His teammates bustled around him, basking in the Clippers' 102-81 win. Make no mistake: Pierce was a part of it. He's one of the keenest minds in the game, history in high tops, never shy about sharing his insights. "When I see stuff," Pierce said, "I'm going to talk about it." Chris Paul, Blake Griffin lean on him, Rivers trusts him. From the sidelines, Pierce can still have a considerable impact.
Still, not playing is grating. "It is what it is," Pierce told The Vertical, his voice trailing off. "It is what it is. It's difficult. As a competitor, you want to compete and help your team win. A close game – I've been in those situations lots of times. When you have competed at a high level, it's difficult."
Pierce chose Los Angeles last summer, exiting Washington, reuniting with Rivers in his hometown to make one more run at a ring. The Clippers had a hole at small forward, and Pierce, at 38, believed he could fill it. He moved in and out of the starting lineup, coming off the bench early, stepping into a starting role when Griffin went out with injuries. He purposefully eased into the season slowly, preserving his body, hoping to build toward an enhanced postseason role. "I expected to play more," Pierce said. Yet when Griffin returned this month, Pierce saw his playing time dwindle.
Here's an easy narrative on why Pierce fell out of the rotation: He's 38. He's old. He can't defend. Rubbish. Pierce, Clippers coaches say, remains a solid positional defender. His athleticism has waned, but really, when was Pierce a dynamic athlete anyway? Instinct and intelligence makes him more than serviceable. No, Pierce lost a numbers game. With Pierce in the starting lineup, L.A.'s second unit came together. Jeff Green and Wesley Johnson complement each other in the frontcourt, while Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers gobble up the backcourt minutes. Rivers isn't about to bust up a productive group, and the Clippers – who got 43 points from their bench on Wednesday – have one.
Yet as Rivers walked down an empty hallway, he was adamant: Pierce will be an asset to this team again. "He's going to help us," Rivers said. "I have no doubt about that. There's a lot left in him." Indeed, as the postseason continues, when experience matters, when big moments arrive, Pierce will still have value. Who knows how Rivers will work him into a game, but rest assured he will.
One more run for Paul Pierce, and maybe that will be the end of it. Pierce won't reveal much about his future – "The last few years it has been an end-of-the-season decision," Pierce told The Vertical. "I'll make that decision after this season, too" – but few in the organization would be surprised if this was it. From afar, Pierce watched Kobe Bryant say goodbye with a smile. "That was awesome," Pierce said. He won't get that goodbye, not in L.A., but when his playing days are over, when he returns to Boston, he will. He will be feted by a town that adores him and take his place among names like Russell, Heinsohn and Bird in Celtics lore.
That day is coming. One legend walked away last week, and another could be behind him. Kobe Bryant had his moment at Staples Center last week. Pierce hopes he can have a few more of his.
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