One Man’s Take: Top 5 Pierce clutch performances
Posted by Zach Lowe on Feb 9, 2009
If you haven’t noticed, the geniuses at 82games released their latest set of data: A look at which players have taken and made the most potential game-winning shots in the NBA over the last six seasons.
The site looked only at shots taken with 24 seconds or less remaining and the team with the ball either tied or down by 1 or 2 points. The data show that most superstars shoot an ugly percentage (30 percent is average) in these situations, and the implications of that finding for end-game strategy could be huge.
Not surprisingly, Paul Pierce has been one of the most relied upon end-of-game shooters in the league, with 32 shot attempts — 12th in the league. He’s made 11, or 34 percent, slightly above the league average.
Still, it’s a low percentage, and whether it means Doc Rivers has to re-think the C’s late-game strategy is a question this site will try to answer in the coming days; last week’s game against Philly, with back-to-back last-minute plays called for Ray Allen, show Doc is already moving away from a Pierce-centric late-game offense.
The chart also shows Pierce gets to the line more than almost anyone in these situations: Of players with 20 or more attempts, only Gilbert Arenas has a better FTA/FGA ratio. Pierce’s nine assists top the list easily.
The chart got me thinking about what “clutch” really is, if there any definition for it at all. Is a regular-season buzzer-beater more “clutch” than scoring 10 straight points in a third quarter run that swings a post-season game? I’d categorize the latter as more “clutch.” For that reason (and because I like the occasional stroll down memory lane), I decided to go through all 63 playoff games Pierce has played and find what I consider his top five clutch performances. Going through those games was really eye-opening. Before we get to the list, here are some general conclusions:
• Pierce’s ability to get the foul line is a really, really important skill. You go through old game logs, and you lose count of how many times Pierce rights a wobbly Celtics offense by attacking the rim and getting fouled. It’s not as spectacular as a buzzer-beater, but the points pile up.
• A few clutch performances cloud our memories. No player is clutch very often. Pierce had two 2-for-14 performances in last year’s playoffs alone, and he shot an Artest-induced 26-for-76 in Indy’s 2004 sweep of Boston. Believe it or not, Pierce hasn’t hit what 82games would classify as a game-winning shot in the playoffs (though he’s missed a few). You forget these things because you remember the good moments. Like these:
5) Game 5: 2002 first-round series vs. Philadelphia
The Rebirth: After a six-season playoff drought, the C’s were back. Sure, they weren’t very good (49-33, seeded third), but just being in the playoffs made the team feel important again. After losing a tough Game 4 at Philly (‘Toine missed and end-of-game three, natch), the C’s were home for the decisive Game 5 — the first really big game in a long, long time. And Pierce did this: 46 points on 15-for-26 from the field, including 8-of-10 from deep, to lead the C’s to a 120-87 win. This might rank higher had the game been close, but you put up 46 in a series-deciding game, you get on this list.
4) (tie): 2003 first-round series vs. Indiana, Games 1 and 4.
I’m cheating a bit, but it’s hard to separate these two games, since they were the pivotal games in a 4-2 series win over the Reggie-J.O. Pacers. The C’s stole Game 1 at Indy, 103-100, by outscoring the Pacers 34-21 in the fourth quarter. Pierce had 21 of those points — on just five shot attempts. He went 4-for-5, including 3-for-3 from deep, and 10-for-10 from the line. A dominant quarter, the very definition of clutch. When you have a fourth quarter like that (and finish with 40 points), it doesn’t matter if you shot 8-of-24 for the game.
Game 4 is the famous Al Harrington trash talk game. Here’s the clip, and here’s the ESPN recap, in which Harrington recounts Pierce saying, “I hope you’re ready, because I’m ready to bring it” before Pierce nailed a three in Harrington’s face to end the third quarter. Pierce finished with 37-10-7, including 21 in a third-quarter that started with the C’s down 47-36 and ended with Boston up 73-61.
3) Game 1: 2008 NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles
Maybe I’m over-rating this game for sentimental reasons. It is hard to describe what a long-time Celtics fan felt when Pierce injured his right knee and was carried off the court with 6:48 left in the third quarter and the Celtics down 62-58. I remember telling my girlfriend at the time that it was unfair — to the team, to fans enjoying the 1980s nostalgia, but most of all to Pierce, who had waited so long to have an honest chance to win. And he was playing well — he was 3-for-3 from the field in the third to keep the Celtics in the game before the injury.
The C’s actually scored five straight points to take the lead before Pierce re-entered with 5:03 left. He attacked immediately, drawing a shooting foul on Kobe Bryant on his first possession back in the game. That had to have psyched up the team.
But the three-pointers that came later — those three-pointers were magic. The first, with 1:25 to go in the third, put the C’s up 72-71. After a stop, Pierce made another, and the C’s were up 75-71.
If you believe in things like “setting the tone” and “momentum,” this stretch set the tone for the series and gave the Celtics momentum to win a title. Pierce was quiet otherwise, with 22 total points, but those 15 in the third quarter just felt more important than regular points. They were inspiring.
2) Game 3: 2002 Eastern Conference Finals vs. New Jersey
Confession: I didn’t watch the fourth quarter of this game live. The C’s were down 21 entering the quarter, and they looked awful. I was in Boston visiting my girlfriend, we had plans, and I was trying to turn over a new leaf and be mature about my sports fandom.
We went to see a movie. I don’t remember what it was. When we came out of the theater in Cambridge, people on the streets were waving green towels and chanting “Let’s Go Celtics.” I thought, “They couldn’t have. There’s no way.” I asked a stranger, and he told me what had happened.
I learned my lesson about being mature. What I missed was among the greatest comebacks in sports history, and Pierce fueled it more than anyone. He scored 19 of the C’s 41 points in the fourth quarter, going 6-for-7 from the floor and 7-for-9 from the line, including a 2-for-2 trip with 46 seconds left to put Boston up 91-90.
Look at the play-by-play: Every shot PIerce took was right at the rim. When you attack like that and no one can stop you, it takes the jumper–and the inherent cold streaks that go with it–out of the equation. Pierce was relentless, the Nets had no answer, and he got to the line nine times in one quarter. A masterpiece.
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
1) Game 7: 2008 Eastern Conference semi-finals vs. Cleveland
It’s in the argument for greatest post-season performance in Celtic history — 41 points on 13-of-23 shooting, matching LeBron’s 45-point classic shot-for-shot. The only possible knock on this game: Pierce was quiet and sloppy in the fourth quarter, scoring “just” six points and turning the ball over four times. But that doesn’t erase the fact that without Pierce, a 66-16 Celtics team goes home after the second round. It would likely have been the biggest disappointment in Celtic post-season history. There was also the most important jump ball in Celtics history, when Pierce out-hustled LeBron for possession with 1:00 to go and the C’s clinging to a 91-88 lead. Thankfully, David Thorpe is doing his best to make sure everyone remembers this play.
• 2002: Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals vs. Detroit (Pierce scored 23 of his 25 in the second half to lead the underdog Celtics to a 90-79 win and a 3-1 series lead. Pierce also grabbed 17 boards).
• 2008: Game 4 of the NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles (The Comeback Game is the toughest omission from the Pierce top five. Pierce scored 10 points on 3-for-3 shooting in a third quarter that saw the C’s trim an 18-point halftime deficit to just two going into the fourth. He also had three assists in the quarter and two more on the two biggest baskets of the fourth quarter — Eddie House’s jumper to finally put the C’s up, 84-83, and Ray Allen’s tough lay-in to extend the lead to three. Pierce was 1-for-3 from the field in the fourth and 3-of-4 at the line. He finished with 20-7-4 for the game).
• 2008: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Detroit (Pierce scored 12 points in the 4th quarter as the C’s outscored the Pistons 29-13 to rally for a huge road win and a trip the Finals. Pierce hit two free throws with 1:35 left to put the C’s up 85-79 and ice the game).