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Steve Aschburner

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Paul Pierce hasn't appeared to be his usually productive self during the second round.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Celtics, fans still waiting for Pierce to show up


Posted May 8 2010 2:39PM

BOSTON -- Paul Pierce "writes" a blog for the Boston Globe's Web site. The most recent of his occasional posts went up Friday morning, and it had nothing to do with Game 3 that night of the Celtics' Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not a word about his grueling individual matchup with the league's two-time MVP, LeBron James. Nary a peep (and certainly not a tweet) about how pivotal this was, getting two games at TD Garden after swiping the homecourt edge in the series with a Game 2 victory at The Q.

No, what Pierce blogged about were some genuine, heartfelt, real-life views on fatherhood and how it changes a fellow:

You grow up a lot faster. ... My daughter, Prianna Lee, turned two last month. ...Now you get done with the game, you get done with practice, I can't wait to get home and see my little daughter. No matter how your day is going, you go home, you see her, she comes running up to me and you forget all your worries. I've had bad days, bad games and she erases all that stuff for me.

Uh oh. As smart and mature as that outlook on life and family might be, it is not what Boston sports fans wanted to be clicking on before, during or after the Celtics suffered the worst home playoff loss in franchise history. Especially when Pierce coughed up one of the most dismal of his 88 postseason performances so far in that 124-95 beatdown.

Then there was the scene that played out moments before the second half began, as Pierce and Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal positioned themselves for the initial possession. There was small talk. Smiles. Pleasantries at a thoroughly unpleasant time -- Boston was down 65-43 -- for the home team and its fans. That got a lot of green boxers in a bunch, too, the sight of the Celtics' captain chit-chatting with a hated foe when the task at hand was so grim.

Frankly, it's hard to blame them. Fans want players to die a little with each loss, same as them. Fans pay big money to see their teams at their best or at least laboring hard and grimacing as they fall short. Fans might like it, knowing that their favorites are grounded and stable and centered as human beings away from the court, but that really is not a priority for them in the 2-3 hours it takes to watch a game or the two weeks that a playoff series runs.

Michael Jordan's obsession with winning, every time, every place? Kevin Garnett's woofing and chest-thumping, even at All-Star Games? Kobe Bryant's facial contortions and megalomania? That might make them lousy neighbors -- imagine putting your fence three inches beyond your property line -- but it is fire, it is fuel, it is focus.

Bottom line, the Celtics and their fans want Pierce to play better. Failing that, they want to see the struggle, the sweat, the strain, the anger, the frustration that somehow they just know they would be feeling in his shoes.

So one way (win) or the other (lose), people want more from Pierce than he has been giving. People are right, too, because the Celtics want more as well.

"He's got to get more involved," Boston coach Doc Rivers said after Friday's train wreck. "Defensively as a group we've got to help him some, and then he's got to get into LeBron more, so it's a combination."

Rivers said before Game 3 that the Celtics had "gotten away" with a less-than-aggressive Pierce through the first two games. There was no third time. Pierce's night was lousy enough to break down several which ways. Statistically, the numbers were and are ugly: 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, four rebounds, three assists, 1-of-5 from 3-point range, 2-of-5 from the foul line. That has him at 12.7 ppg on 31 percent shooting (13-of-42) in the series after what had been a solid first round against Miami (19.6 ppg, 45.7 FG percent).

Offensively, Pierce didn't score his first basket until midway through the second quarter, by which time James was sitting down with 24 points. After his li'l visit with Shaq to start the third quarter, Pierce put up three shots, hitting his lone 3-pointer to get the Celtics, uh, within 81-58. He stuck around in the fourth long enough to miss two from the arc, but it mattered not: The Cavaliers won with one quarter tied behind their backs, their 96 points through three sufficient.

Defensively? Look, no one can blame Pierce alone for James' 38 points or the explosive start (21 in the first quarter) that essentially dictated the night. But when Rivers is grumbling that Cleveland got to the line too often and Pierce is stuck guarding the other guys' most dangerous scorer, how is that he can be on the floor for 35:32 and commit zero personal fouls? Zero. Really?

Even a gratuitous but hard foul on James when the Celtics were down 14 or 26 or 35 points would have shown something. To the Cavaliers, to the Celtics, to the folks in the stands or watching at home. That there was none suggested a lack of energy, intensity, urgency or an old-fashioned, line-in-the-stand moment of "Enough!"

It also left a void filled for now with serious snark. As in: James' elbow is a lot healthier than Pierce's game these days. Anyone can handle The Truth. The end of Boston's Big Three was rumored to be coming this summer, not played out before everyone's eyes in this series. And so on, including a few wheelchair cracks.

What made it harder to swallow for Boston was that Cleveland heeded no special "Pierce Rules" for coping with the Celtics' regular-season scoring leader (18.3 ppg), a career 22.3 postseason threat, the 2008 Finals MVP and the guy who torched them for 41 points in Game 7, same round, same teams, two years ago.

"We're not right now doing anything special on Paul," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "LeBron has had that assignment for most of the series, if not all of the series and you know when [Pierce] catches it, he's going to do a nice job of making him work." Or look like he's not working.

When I asked James about defending Pierce, he didn't defer to any vague team concepts. He framed this as a 1-on-1 challenge -- one from which he so far has eclipsed or erased Pierce. That's a very MVP-like thing to do and a significant statement, too, about who was, who is and who's got next.

"Paul's one of the great players that we have in this league, and I just try to take the pressure off the other guys by wanting to guard him," James said. "It's hard to stop a guy like Paul because he has so much to his game. You just want to try and keep a body in front of him. If he goes up and shoots it, just try to contest. Stay down a lot on his pump fakes. But he's a really good player."

Afterward, Pierce stood up by agreeing to face reporters in the interview room, a chore his teammates all ducked. He calmly walked down the hallway, fist-bumping a couple of Boston's finest near the end of their security detail. He even dropped the word "embarrassing" a couple of times from the podium, which proved he knew how bad it was and how dire the situation has become for the Celtics heading into Game 4 Sunday afternoon.

But when Pierce came with more grounded, big-picture comments about his own struggles, he sounded disengaged, a little impotent and not very leader-like.

"It doesn't matter what I do offensively individually," he said. "I could have scored 30 and we probably would have lost the game the way we played defense. The focus is not on me to score 20, 30 points. Obviously I definitely want to shoot the ball a lot better. ... But it's not about one person. We played well the first two games and I still haven't had a big game. It's nothing I'm going to worry about. I know it's going to come as the series goes along."

Three thoughts on the above:

1. Pierce scoring 30 would have made James work even harder on defense, potentially sapping some of the Cleveland star's offense, and it would have kept the score closer throughout, buying time for his Celtics teammates or even the crowd to make a difference.

2. That big game Pierce keeps promising might not come if this series goes a-short rather than along.

3. Word is, even Prianna Lee is getting a little nervous.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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