Even playing for a storied franchise like the Boston Celtics, Paul Pierce stood out as one of their all-time greats. Throughout his career—most notable being the 15 seasons he spent wearing Celtic green—he has provided fans with many memorable moments that are etched in the lure of sports history.
This past season, his 19th, was his final one in the NBA. While his last NBA game was with the Los Angeles Clippers, Pierce ceremoniously ended his career back where it all started for him, a place where he won Finals MVP as he helped capture the franchise’s 17th championship, scored 24,021 of his 26,397 career points (15th place all time) and finished as the team’s second all-time leading scorer (behind John Havlicek). Pierce signed the symbolic one-day contract with the Celtics before officially hanging up his sneakers.
His next move will be making the short drive from Boston to Springfield, Mass., to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But until he gets that hallowed call, Pierce will be taking his talents to ESPN to serve as a basketball analyst.
We take a look at Pierce’s body of work—one that started with him serendipitously falling into the Celtics’ laps at No. 10 in the 1998 NBA Draft (Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter were top-10 picks, but all you have to remember was Michael Olowokandi going No. 1)—before taking elbow jumper after elbow jumper (a shot that became even deadlier in the final seconds of a close game). Pierce was so cold that Shaq bestowed the nickname “The Truth” to him after a 42-point game in his third season in the League.
Shaq would show foresight with the moniker, as Pierce would go on to hurt opponents with brutal honesty for the next dozen years. In celebration of his storied career, we take a look at some of Pierce’s best performances.
If you had to pick a player that served as a main foil to Pierce during his career, it would be LeBron James. Pierce’s Celtics stomped out LeBron’s first go-round with the Cavaliers many times and played the main adversary against the Miami Heat when LeBron took his talents to South Beach. The two played the same position and found themselves locked up against one another, often in heated playoff battles. The genesis of the rivalry is murky, but it definitely got rooted in a regular-season game on Feb. 15, 2006, between the Celtics and Cavaliers. For all of Pierce’s prolific scoring, he had never reached the half-century mark, but there’s nothing like a good nemesis to draw out the best. Pierce and James went at one another most of the game, each man feeling it. When it was all over, LeBron copped a 43-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist triple-double, while Pierce finished with a career-high 50 points, 8 dimes and 7 rebounds before fouling out.
2002 Eastern Conference Finals Game 3
During the 2001-02 season, the Celtics started the new millennium on a resurgence. Pierce, alongside Antoine Walker, was the force behind the new-generation Celtics. McHale, Bird and Parish didn’t walk through the door, but they did have a young nucleus surrounded by a strong veteran locker room presence. That season, the Celtics finished with a 49-33 record and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they faced the New Jersey Nets. The series was tied at 1-1 when it went back to Boston for Game 3. Entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics found themselves down 26 points. Pierce and Walker combined for the first 11 points of the fourth quarter, and Kenny Anderson and Rodney Rogers also provided key contributions down the stretch. The Celtics overcame a 26-point fourth quarter deficit to lead the Celtics to a 2-1 series lead. Pierce finished the game with 28 points, including 19 points in the fourth quarter.
This had nothing to do with basketball, but it would undoubtedly shake and shape Pierce’s career path, almost ending it before it even started. In the offseason before his third year in the League—on September 25, 2000—he was stabbed in a Boston nightclub. Stabbed 11 times—one of them narrowly missing his heart—it looked like it would derail a promising career for the budding star who had averaged 19.5 PPG the previous season. Amazingly, Pierce would recover, leaving the hospital 11 days after the attack and going on to play all 82 games of the 2000-01 season, averaging 25.3 PPG. This incident was a precursor to his never say die attitude that he displayed throughout his career.
2008 Finals Game 1 “The Wheelchair Game”
Willis Reed set the standard for emotional entrances back in 1970, but 38 years later, Pierce showed that he also has a flair for the dramatic. During the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2008 Finals, Pierce was injured on a play after Kobe Bryant scored a basket. He fell down to the ground and clutched his knee in extreme pain. Given the reaction and the eerie silence that fell over the TD Garden, it appeared that the Celtics would have to battle for the championship with just their Big Two of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, especially when Pierce was unable to walk back to the locker room on his own, requiring teammates to carry him to a wheelchair. The specter of gloom was lifted later in the quarter, when Pierce would hop out of the tunnel to the sideline, receiving a thunderous ovation. Pierce would return to the game and proceed to hit a three-pointer. The emotional lift would propel the Celtics to a Game 1 victory and eventual championship.
Over his first 9 NBA seasons, Pierce had some great moments in Boston. However, the team would take a downturn following the 2004-05 season. The Celtics would win just 33 games in 2006 and 24 games in 2007. Still in prime, Pierce would be the subject of trade rumors throughout 2007. If that took place in 2017, Pierce trade rumors would be hashtagged everywhere. If not for the genius strokes authored by Danny Ainge in the acquisitions of Ray Allen on draft day and Kevin Garnett later that summer, Pierce might’ve traded in his green uniform earlier. That Boston team came together really fast on both ends of the court. Defensively, they were one of the best teams in the NBA in the last decade, winning 66 games in the regular season. Pierce was the offensive focal point, averaging 21.8 PPG during the Finals en route to Finals MVP.
2014 Return To Boston
For the first 16 years of his career, Paul Pierce called Boston home. That all changed in the summer of 2013, when the Celtics decided that their championship window had closed and the just-moved-to-Brooklyn Nets were convinced they needed to make a championship impression in their new home. Boston sent their veteran trio of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets in exchange for a king’s ransom in draft picks, including what would turn out to be the 2017 No. 1 pick. Pierce was the heartbeat for Boston basketball for so many years, so when he made his return to Boston everyone knew it would be an emotional night. When they honored him with a video tribute, you could feel the wave of emotion that overcame his body. You never know what you have until it’s gone, and for Boston, their heart and soul returned, if only for a night.
Duel with LeBron James
Over the years, the Celtics have experienced their share of great in-game duels during the playoffs; Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had their share of battles and most famously, when Michael Jordan prompted Larry Bird to drop the “God disguised as Michael Jordan” quote after MJ dropped 63 points in a losing effort. Arguably second was the LeBron James vs. Pierce shootout during Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Earlier in his career, LeBron’s playoff nemeses were the Detroit Pistons, but now the Boston Celtics replaced them as the new challenge to East supremacy. James was just entering the prime of his career, while Pierce was at the peak of his powers. Both players traded basket for basket and even guarded each other on multiple possessions. In the end, LeBron won the individual battle with 45 points but the Celtics came out on top, led by Pierce’s 41.
I Called Game!
Pierce is one of the most lethal crunch time performers in history. By 2015, he was playing for the Washington Wizards and his role was shepherding an up-and-coming team that had John Wall and Bradley Beal to take the big shots. During their first round matchup against the Hawks, Pierce found himself with the ball in the closing seconds of a tied game, and he did what always came naturally to him: He hit a game winning shot at the elbow off the glass at the buzzer. During his postgame interview, Pierce was asked if he called “bank” on that shot. He boldly retorted: “I called game!” That shot proved that he might not be the same player he had been a few years prior, but mentally he was still there. It was his basketball IQ that allowed him and other players like him to play late in their careers.
Game Winning Block
Two things defined Pierce: His ability in the clutch and his offense. What was overlooked was his defense. Pierce’s offense always overshadowed his defense. While no lockdown defender, Pierce was known to get some big stops. As a a member of the Brooklyn Nets in an intense 2014 First Round Game 7, Pierce would flash his defense and his clutch gene in one play. With the Nets up 1 point and the Raptors getting one final possession, Pierce dashed the North’s hope with a game-winning block against Kyle Lowry as he drove the lane looking for a heroic finish.
Like all great scorers, Pierce was always one shot from turning around any slump. No better example of this was a regular-season game in the 2001-02 season against a very good Nets squad (good enough to make it to the Finals that season). Pierce started the game dismally, finishing the first half with 2 points on 1-of-16 shooting. For all intents and purposes, it looked like it would be one of those nights that even the best of players have from time to time—except Pierce came back with a vengeance. He would go bonkers in the second half for 46 points, making 12 for 18 shots, including 5 three-pointers. The Nets were unable to put the fire out. They put one of the best defenders at the time, Kenyon Martin, against Pierce and when that didn’t work, double- and triple-teams.
Final Game In Boston
The perfect ending in sports is always revered because it’s so rare. If you ignore the two years in Washington, Michael Jordan’s career would’ve had the ultimate ending in the form of a game-winning shot in the Finals. Kobe Bryant went out in Kobe fashion with a 60-point exit game. In a perfect world, Pierce would’ve retied a Celtic, walking away as Gino gyrated on the jumbotron. While Pierce’s final go-round in Boston wasn’t in green, it was no less emotional. Wearing LA Clippers red and blue, Pierce no longer played big minutes, but out of respect for the blood, sweat and tears that he left in Boston, Doc Rivers penciled Pierce into the starting lineup so he could receive a proper intro and send-off in Boston. He didn’t put on a vintage Pierce performance, but his impact on the Boston community was felt during pre-game introductions and postgame goodbyes. Pierce kissed the leprechaun at halfcourt and sent even more kisses to the crowd, returning the outpouring of love all game from Boston fans for his 15 years as a Celtic. As a final farewell, Pierce left the Garden with one final three-pointer, ensuring he’d never go scoreless at Boston.