The Biggest of the Big Three

Title: The Biggest of the Big Three
Date: June 12, 2008
Original Source: Hoops Addict
Synopsis: This Hoops Addict article took a look at the Boston Celtics’ current playoff run, highlighting Paul Pierce as the X-Factor and de facto Franchise Player despite the Big Three-style roster construction.

”Hey Mr. Carter (I am him!)/ Tell me where have you been? (Around the world and now I’m back again!)/ They been asking, they been searching, they been wondering why (Who’s been asking about me? In case they wondering…).” – Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne’s Mr. Carter (Tha Carter III)

The brand new line featuring “the best rapper alive” and “the best rapper alive since the best rapper retired” sums up my feelings on Paul Pierce completely. Initially heralded as a franchise player with limitless potential, Pierce somehow lost steam and media attention over the years as more vibrant or loud-mouthed stars ruled the NBA. Don’t get me wrong, Pierce wasn’t in danger of becoming underrated, but he was a max-contract player who was sometimes left out of the conversations surrounding the best players in the game.

Let’s look at this curiosity in context, though.

It goes without saying that Boston trading for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the offseason shook the league at its foundation. Nobody can argue against the impact these moves had throughout the league, creating a season-long trading frenzy in place of the usual ho-hum player movement in the NBA. Whether you like it or not, Boston’s experiment with three major superstars was something that hadn’t been attempted in such an obvious manner in some time.

They broke the rules by building a thin team around three stars while hoping veterans and role players could fill in the gaps. Obviously, since I write this during the NBA Finals of which the Celtics are a participant, the experiment hasn’t gone terribly wrong (more on the ramifications of that face next week). And they didn’t just break the rules – they did it with three players that were a curious match, with questionable careers to that point.

To refresh, Ray Allen came over from Seattle, a 32-year old career scoring machine and the second most prolific shooter of all time. Kevin Garnett came over from Minnesota, a 31-year old career double-double machine and one of the best power forwards ever. They joined Paul Pierce, a 30-year old with a very balanced offensive attack.

Ignoring the age of those involved, the real question came from the fact that none of these men had come from strong teams. That is, they were labelled, if not explicitly than by history, as losers; superstar cogs on poorly performing teams. Allen, remember,missed the playoffs in three of his seven seasons with Milwaukee (only exiting the first round once, as well), before missing the playoffs in three of his four years with Seattle (winning just one playoff series) . Garnett, remember, lost in seven straight first round playoff series, then a conference final, with four non-playoff years mixed in. Pierce, remember, missed the playoffs in his first three years and the past two seasons with four playoff appearances sandwiched in between (three of which included good supporting casts).

While admittedly foggy and hard to blame on one player, none of these stars had what one would call championship pedigree. Enter The Experement, and christen them The Big Three.

This season, much of the focus has been on Allen and Garnett. After all, they were the (slightly) bigger names, and they were the acquisitions. They were the big shake-up, and they provided the stories, whether they be Garnett’s MVP candidacy or Allen’s ankles. The focus has been on Garnett’s intensity and leadership. It has been on his defense and his impact on other players. The focus has been on Ray Allen’s battle with age and inconsistencies.

Pierce has laid in the cut, somewhat forgotten. But rest assured, when the dust from the playoff settles, it will be Pierce we remember as the biggest of the Big Three.

It’s Pierce who has drawn the unenviable task of guarding the best opposing player at most times. It is Pierce who has had to pick up the offensive slack for Kevin Garnett, and the defensive slack for Ray Allen. (I would add that Pierce ignited the team with his injury comeback in Game 1, but there is a dead horse somewhere far too beaten for me to do any more damage.)

My point is this – Pierce has made people forget about Allen’s ankles and inconsistency, and has taken the season-long story focused on Garnett and put it on himself. This isn’t a selfish thing, either, since Garnett has struggled mightily (18 points per game on just 35.5% shooting), including runs in Game 1 and Game 3 of five or more missed field goals. Garnett has lived up to his reputation as someone who shies away in the clutch (offensively only, of course), and Pierce has picked up the slack. While Pierce has scored roughly the same (18.3 a night), he has done so on 45% shooting and 58.3% on threes.

It is no surprise then that in the two Celtic victories, Pierce has 50 points and shot 16-of-26, but the Celtics lost when he posted 6 points on 2-of-12 shooting. Garnett, meanwhile, has had roughly the same game each night out (24-13, 17-14, 13-12-5-3). You cannot say, in a three game sample size, that Paul Pierce is the team’s X-Factor and their best player, but you can say this:

Paul Pierce was underappreciated before this season. In 2007-08, that has been taken a step further, as he has received little credit for the resurrection of his franchise. Yes, Garnett and Allen have been huge in changing the system, mind frame, and identity of this team. But the team still belongs to Pierce, and it is he who must lead them if they want to win a championship in a few days time.

Paul Pierce, somewhat forgotten, has returned, “in case you’re wondering…”

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