Boston Celtics

A reminder that Paul Pierce was at his best when the stakes were highest

Don't let post-playing career perceptions of Paul Pierce warp your memory of who he was as a player.

Pierce was "The Truth" for a reason.

As the all-time great forward prepares for his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction on Sept. 11, let this serve as a reminder that Pierce was undeniably one of the most clutch players the game has ever seen.

He was never the quickest or shiftiest player on the floor, but he somehow always got to his spot. He'd size up his defender slowly, patiently waiting for the clock to tick down to make his move. He knew where he wanted to get to, the defender knew where he wanted to get to, every player on the floor and the coaches on both teams knew where he wanted to get to, as did every person in the building.

He could even tell you exactly what he was going to do, then go ahead and do it anyway, and still get the shot to fall.

That wasn't even a game-winner or a shot in the clutch, just one of the toughest moments of Pierce's career, capping off a 21-point third quarter in Game 3 of the First Round of the 2003 NBA Playoffs. It's a prime example - and one of the earlier ones from the beginning stages of his career - of the type of zone Pierce could get into when his team needed a bucket.

And we'd see plenty more of it as his 19-year career played out.

It didn't take long for Pierce to become a prolific scorer in the NBA. By the age of 25, he had already averaged over 25 points per game in three different seasons, a milestone he reached a total of five times in his career. He posted over 20 points per game in eight seasons and never averaged fewer than 15 points per game until the final four years of his career when he was over the age of 35.

Although he never won a scoring title, he did lead the league in total points in 2001-02, with his 26.1 points per game trailing only Allen Iverson (31.4 PPG) and Shaquille O'Neal (27.2 PPG). He rarely comes up in the conversation of all-time great scorers, but Pierce amassed 26,397 total points to finish in the top 15 in league history by the time he retired (he now ranks 16th all-time, with Carmelo Anthony surpassing him recently).

It's understandable to let him slip through the cracks when discussing the best scorers ever, but the same cannot be said for the conversation of, "if you need one shot to win the game, who are you taking?"

That list shouldn't run very long before you get to Pierce.

According to Stathead, from 1996 to 2017 (the year "clutch" data became available to the year of Pierce's last game), there were only three players who knocked down more shots in the clutch than Pierce. Their names? Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

When you change the criteria to raise the stakes a little, tallying go-ahead field goals with five or fewer seconds remaining, Pierce still ranks fourth, this time behind Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and Bryant.

If we're strictly talking buzzer-beaters, Pierce and Bryant stand side-by-side at the top of the list with 10 game-winning makes as the game clock struck zero.

That's pretty decent company across the board if you ask me.

Pierce needed little-to-no separation to get a shot off, thriving in high-pressure situations regardless of what the defence looked like around him.

I'll never forget Game 5 of the First Round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs. It was a gruelling series between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls with two of the four games already needing overtime to decide a winner, bringing the series to a 2-2 tie.

Pierce knocked down the game-tying shot at the buzzer in regulation, then buried the game-winner in overtime to help the Celtics take a 3-2 lead in the series.

The Celtics went on to win the series in seven games before falling to the Orlando Magic in the Conference Semifinals.

The following season, Pierce buried another playoff game-winner, this time against the Miami Heat in the First Round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs.

That shot gave Boston a commanding 3-0 lead in the series, and it went on to sweep the Heat in four games.

There is one other clutch shot from Pierce in a Celtics uniform that I do want to bring up, even though it wasn't a game-winner. Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, matched up with the Heat once again, but this time, it was league MVP LeBron James and the Big 3.

You could just feel that this was Pierce's last chance to win another ring with Boston, and the Celtics had the opportunity to put themselves one win away from returning to the NBA Finals. Up by one with under a minute remaining, Pierce was on an island with his rival James. With the shot clock winding down and James' hand right in his face, Pierce rose up for 3, burying the clutch bucket to silence the American Airlines Arena crowd and give Boston a four-point lead it wouldn't surrender, taking a 3-2 series lead.

Little did we know that LeBron would go on to have one of the signature performances of his career in Boston in Game 6, before Miami would knock off the Celtics in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals. But in the moment, that felt like it was going to be the single biggest shot of Pierce's career.

He continued to hit big shots even after his time in Boston, headlined by the now-famous "I called game" shot in Game 3 against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 NBA Playoffs when he was playing for the Washington Wizards.

Few people remember that Pierce also hit an insane shot in Game 6 of that same series to try and keep the Wizards' playoff hopes alive, but it was after the buzzer and didn't count.

It was more than just having a knack for hitting timely shots when the ball was in his hands late in close games; Pierce sought out these moments, wanting to take the last shot as often as possible with the game on the line. He was one of those players who made you feel like a "clutch gene" was a tangible attribute, leaving you hardly surprised any time he got a shot to fall in a big moment to decide a game's outcome.

If there is anything to remember Paul Pierce's Hall of Fame career by, let it be the countless times he stepped up in the clutch to win the game for his team.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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