Of course Paul Pierce was going to take his time.
That stubborn deliberateness with which he’s able to get to his spot at his pace has always been his calling card; his contribution to the uniqueness of greatness. Pierce’s basketball CV reads like a case study of dichotomies: neither fast nor fast looking, yet spry enough to have routinely meandered past 2s and 3s alike for the better part of 17 years; neither hulking nor brawny, yet strong enough to have gone head to head with every iteration of LeBron over the last decade-plus; neither quiet nor humble, yet badass enough to call his shot and cold-blooded enough to make it time and again.
And as we now know, longevity is also one of his virtues. Pierce has been herking and jerking and pivoting and daggering his way through the NBA since the Clinton administration, which was around the same time he was bestowed with a nickname that would prove both prescient and lasting.
He hung 46 on Iverson’s 76ers in a winner-take-all Game 5 in his first playoff series. He scored 19 as part of a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Nets that same spring of 2002. He squared up Kobe in his prime and tore from his grasp the final piece of hardware Bryant coveted after three title runs alongside MVP Shaq. He’s going to go down as LeBron’s most intense and only true rival.
And now, a full seven years after he captured his first and only championship and 13 years since he officially made Boston start believing it had found its next Pantheon Celtic, he splashed together arguably his masterpiece. It’s appropriate that his regular-season disappearance and subsequent sleight of hand into and through the playoffs came for a team deemed the Wizards, as his act had all the elements of a superb magic trick: it simultaneously wowed us, defied sensibility and left us wanting more.
Long before he called “Game!” and “Series!”
It was a striking and scathing preamble that had Pierce loyalists quietly smirking while casual fans hastily tapped at their smartphones to verify that the guy was even still in the league. And then at the creaking age of 37, he grabbed the mic and delivered his address over the course of a 10-game playoff run that can aptly be summarized as American Sniper on hardwood: His performance was riveting, divisive and he made certain to answer for every shot he took.
As for the shots themselves, were they ever plentiful. First came the Raptors, against whom he reprised his role as mercenary boogeyman of the north, rendering “Jurassic Park” extinct for the second straight year in a second set of threads.
Next up were the Hawks, a team Pierce once used as a perennial stepping stone to loftier goals and, most recently, one that would help him stamp his legacy as an all-time playoff assassin while staking his claim as the Vine king du jour. His buzzer-beating bank shot won Game 3, rescued the Wizards from a monumental fourth-quarter collapse and gave him celebrity status across the social-mediaverse. Then came his go-ahead three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 5 – along with that subsequent premature salvo to the Atlanta bench – a parlay of vintage Pierce dramatics that was promptly reduced to a footnote because no Washington player could corral a game-sealing rebound.
Which brings us to Game 6, Pierce’s worst of the postseason by any measure. He had missed six of his seven field goal attempts, including a wide-open three with two minutes remaining that could have stretched Washington’s lead to four points. His shots had hit the front of the rim on multiple occasions, a tell-tale sign of heavy legs. For the first time, it looked like the 1,408 games on his NBA odometer were finally taking their toll. Yet when the Wizards improbably found themselves with a last-gasp chance to tie the game with six seconds left after a Hawks turnover and a missed free throw, everyone and their mothers inside the Verizon Center knew who would be getting the basketball.
The play was slow developing from the outset. By the time Pierce got the ball coming off a delayed screen, there was only 1.7 seconds left. Despite initially being flanked by Hawks on either side of him, he managed to slither into the corner and bury a fading game-tying trey off one leg. His internal clock is as finely tuned as there is – and to hell with anyone who has ever thwarted him from getting a good look before the buzzer – but replays revealed that the horn sounded about five one-hundreths of a second before the ball left his hand.
Was that his final shot? Did that odometer finally get the best of him? Perhaps. What was clear is he had emptied the chamber, both physically and mentally, maybe more so than any 10-game sample of his career. He admitted as much during a postgame interview in which he hinted at retirement. If it was indeed his outro, it will go down as a fitting encapsulation of “the Truth.” Dazzling. Clutch. And naturally he took his time.