Moment of Truth: Time for Paul Pierce's playoff experience to pay off for Nets
Truth is, Paul Pierce is not the player he used to be, not at age 36, not after 16 seasons in the NBA.
But it also is true that Pierce was not brought to the Nets to be that player. He was acquired, with running mate Kevin Garnett, in part to bring playoff experience and attitude to a psychologically suspect team.
That time is now, starting Saturday in Toronto.
So the question is whether the man Shaquille O'Neal famously dubbed "The Truth" 13 years ago still is that, and can help lead the Nets on a deep playoff run even in a diminished physical state.
Let's ask Shaq himself, shall we?
"Yes, because one, he can bring a lot of experience, and two, it is not all on his shoulders," the TNT analyst said during a phone interview as he watched the Nets lose to the Knicks on Tuesday night.
"He has a couple of [good] years left, especially if he's not the main, go-to guy. He can come off screens and hit a couple of shots. He's played well against Miami. If he can play like that in the playoffs, he's going to be fine."
O'Neal gave himself a series of memorable nicknames during his career, but Pierce's might be his most enduring.
"I would say that is the truth," he deadpanned.
It happened March 13, 2001, when Pierce, a 23-year-old Celtic, scored 42 points and shot 13-for-19 in a 112-107 road loss to O'Neal and the defending and soon-to-be-repeat champion Lakers.
When O'Neal saw Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald in the Lakers' locker room, he pulled him aside and told him to write that "Paul Pierce is the truth," although in the original, there was an expletive before "truth."
"I had heard of him," said O'Neal, who played with Pierce on the Celtics in 2010-11. "Being out there in L.A. [near where Pierce grew up in Inglewood], there was a lot of hype. Sometimes with those guys, it doesn't happen. But when we played against him that one time, I was like, this guy really is the truth, man.
"Watching Magic [Johnson] and all of those guys, I know who's who in the league. That was why I gave him that nickname."
Did O'Neal learn anything about Pierce during their one season as teammates that he hadn’t known before?
“No,’’ Shaq said. “I already knew he was a good floor leader and a great teammate. I knew he was unselfish and I knew he was fearless . . . It was like what he gave us that one night [in 2001]. I was like, ‘This kid is the truth.’ And he’s been playing that way ever since.’’
Before Pierce was The Truth or even a Celtic, he starred at Kansas, where he was a teammate of Jacque Vaughn, a fellow Southern Californian who later spent a decade as an NBA reserve and now coaches the Magic.
Before facing the Nets on Sunday, Vaughn talked about how Pierce might help in the playoffs and mentioned his old college mate's vast experience and championship ring, but also this:
"I haven't run into too many people that Paul's been afraid of, so he has a way about him, and I am quite sure he brings that to this team."
That much we might have known from watching him on television. But was he like that at 19, too?
"Indeed he was," Vaughn said, smiling. "He loved to play the game, always wanted to accept the challenge, and he's gotten better every single day. That's why he's a [future] Hall of Famer."
Grant Hill, an analyst for Turner, also knew Pierce in his pre-NBA years, through playing with him in pickup games at UCLA in the summer of 1998, before Pierce's rookie season was delayed by a lockout.
"We were on the same team and I was like, 'Wow, this kid can flat-out play,' " Hill said.
He saw even then what he would see when Pierce finally began to play games that counted. "Even going back to when he was young," Hill said, "it was just his skill level, his footwork, his confidence and his mentality that impressed me, and that's never wavered."
Hill made a point that helps explain Pierce's staying power: His game was built not so much on raw athleticism as on savvy, so he had less to lose as he aged than do flashier specimens.
"As a guy who guarded him, it was always hard to read him and play against him," Hill said. "He was quick, but he wasn't fast. He was very slow and deliberate, so you had to almost think differently when guarding him.
"He had an old-man game. That was his style. When you get old, it still is hard, but he did not rely as much on explosiveness and quickness and speed."
'A swagger about him'
Pierce has had to evolve, as all aging players must. He played in 75 games this season, averaging 13.5 points in 28 minutes per game -- both career lows. Lately Pierce has served as a power forward by default.
"Smart players are able to do that," Vaughn said. "If you want to stay in this league, you adapt to your times, you adapt to your strengths."
Said ESPN analyst Avery Johnson, who played and later coached against Pierce: "I just think he's kind of reinvented himself in terms of starting at the 'stretch four' position."
ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy called coach Jason Kidd's decision to move Pierce to the 'four' spot "a brilliant move that really helped revive Pierce and their team."
Van Gundy said that although Pierce has lost some of his first-step quickness, he is nimble enough to beat opposing power forwards and yet strong enough defensively to hold his own against most counterparts.
Center Jason Collins, a teammate in Boston and now with the Nets, said, "He is one of the best to ever lace up the shoes and he hasn't done it with overwhelming athleticism.
"He's done it with skill, with footwork, with knowing the game, and using the fundamentals, and so it's cool, as someone like myself who isn't exactly a high flyer, to see a player that works on his craft."
Pierce, who led the Celtics to a title in 2008, has appeared in 136 career playoff games, averaging 20.9 points. But in the end, his presence in the coming weeks will be about more than X's-and-O's. "He has a swagger about him and it's real," Johnson said. "Some players, it's more of a fake swagger. It's not real. But his is real."
Call it a "borderline arrogant" attitude, Johnson said, but all that is part of the package. "The greatness and really, The Truth, his nickname, is that's what he really is. There is nothing false about him."