Here is how it goes: Paul Pierce gets the ball and squares shoulders that are broader than you’d think. Arms that are less-defined than the NBA norm hang with ball in hand as he lowers his 6-7 frame. There is a look on his face that suggests maybe mild indigestion, or that his feet hurt. Then he flinches, head and shoulders and arms at once, and whoever has been tasked with defending him—a decade and a half’s worth of defenders, at this point in his NBA career—flinches with him. They bite, because they always bite.
And then, and this is the difficult part to explain, Pierce is somewhere else. It’s not that he got there quickly, so much, but he’s there, in the place that defender was supposed to protect, which was also the place that Paul Pierce wanted to be all along. That’s how it goes, and that is how it has gone for some time now.
The flinches and the fakes are not new to Pierce, or in basketball. Where LeBron James invents new moves—jabs and jukes and crab dribbles—Pierce’s are simple and familiar and, if you're feeling uncharitable or especially frank, old. They’ve been used by others, if not like this and seemingly not ever in the same way twice. He’s a puppet master, or a magician, or a master chef making a Michelin-star meal out of leftovers. Whatever you like. The league is full of players that make fans ask “how’d he do that?” after a move. In Pierce’s case, it’s not a rhetorical question.
Pierce's attacks of the basket are less “drives” and more “casual strolls." So after he gets past that first defender—which he does, always—it seems certain that he'll be stopped by the next. Same thing with the last man he beats, who's lining up a sure block against the old-looking guy moving at three-quarter speed towards the hoop. We all know how this ends, by now.
Pierce isn't as fast as the players defending him, for the most part. He can’t out-jump many either. This is what makes watching him beat those defenders so consistently, persistently fun: to see the ways he makes all that irrelevant, to watch how he’ll make them lean, or lurch, or jump, or sit flat-footed. That and watching him riffle through his mental Rolodex of moves—it would be a Rolodex; this is not a digital archive—for the next one.
And so every Paul Pierce game is, in some way, an exercise in counter-punching for the last one, even for the last move. Has he hit a few shots in his man’s face? Then comes Pierce-patented move number one: up-fake, absorb contact, take a jumper. Has Pierce gotten to the rim a few too many times? Then get ready for Pierce-patented the second: The step-back elbow jumper. Pierce passes wonderfully well, and moves without the ball as well as he ever has, but line up his every possession-with-intent across the course of a game and a protean narrative becomes clear. He is keeping track of everything.
And about that step-back: when Pierce does retire, the Celtics might as well carve that right elbow out of the parquet and raise that into the rafters along with Pierce’s number. Few players in NBA history have been associated with a single spot quite as Pierce has with this particular right angle. It was so when he was younger, leaner, faster. Even today, when the Celtics need a basket, you can see the defeat in the the opposing coach’s face as Pierce let’s it fly from that spot. It's his.
It is, appropriately, quite unspectacular as stylistic signatures go. There’s no Jordan-esque logo that can capture a mid-range, step-back jumper from the right elbow. It won't lower a casual fan's jaw, let alone drop it. As deadly as it has been over the years, it’s not something that would crack a highlight show. So, in that way and for this player, it's perfect.
More than four thousand men have played the game of basketball at the NBA level, and only 21 of them scored more points than Paul Pierce; 26 if you toss in the ABA scoring numbers. And yet it doesn't feel all that unjust that he remains the “other” guy in discussions of his generation’s greatest players and greatest scorers. Even now, after all this, he's fooling everyone.
For instance: he is currently the league’s 13th-leading scorer, and producing his second-highest scoring output in the Kevin Garnett era. I write about the Celtics as a living and an obsession, and even I need to remind myself of this sometimes.
Your eyes tell you that Pierce is not doing those things. Even as he backpedals and blows kisses to the Madison Square Garden crowd after yet another masterful one-man Broadway show, your eyes tell you he’s not shooting as well has he has in years past. He’s always looked slow, and on many nights now he looks slower still.
So maybe this is foreshadowing, the moment when King Longshanks starts coughing in Braveheart. Sure, Pierce just torched the division leading Knicks, out-dueling MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony and seemingly reviving the Celtics season. Yes, he led a 33-9 third quarter charge against the Hawks, dropping 17 points in 12 vintage minutes. But he’s also the same guy who just a few games ago shot a combined 9-for-33 against the very young, and very fast, Warriors and Clippers. He’s the same guy who just went 3-for-15 from three-point range against the Bobcats and Hornets. The cough is only going to get worse.
And so the temptation is to start outlining the obituaries. At 35, it’s got to end soon, right? No athlete in the world has been able to break this mobius strip of a career cycle. Pierce is different, but there has to be a limit to that. Eventually, even the most finely tuned of bodies break down, and all the deceptive strength and speed and grace in his body notwithstanding, Pierce's is not the most finely tuned of bodies. Except.
Except Pierce wants you to believe that. He wants you to buy into that premise; he needs you to. He is begging you to start reminiscing about his younger days, how he grew into a man with the Celtics. He wants you to remember how wild those years with Antoine Walker were. He wants you to remember that ridiculous head wrap he put on to highlight the lack of calls he was getting against the Indiana Pacers during the 2005 Playoffs.
And as you sit there, head tilted up, remembering those 14-and-counting years of improbable, inexplicable grace, Pierce is by you. Again. You bit, because you always bite.