These days, the savior has been Paul Pierce, night after night after night. Pierce is more than a captain to the Celtics this season; he's their rock. Every single night, he's there to step up when everything around him is uncertain.
For much of the last month, the Big Three has looked like a shadow of its former self. Kevin Garnett, who was the team's backbone for much of the last two years, has looked slower and less intense than the KG of old. He settles for jumpers on offense, and he lets lesser players get the best of him on the defensive end. Ray Allen, the most reliable shooter on the planet just a few short years ago, isn't the same either. His numbers show it.
But Pierce is doing exactly what his team needs most — when others are slacking, he's stepping up to fill the void. That's what a good leader does.
Take Sunday afternoon, for instance — on a good day, the Celtics would never have needed every last possession of overtime to beat the lowly Knicks. But Sunday wasn't a good day. Allen shot 3-for-13. Garnett shot 4-for-15, and to make matters worse he got burned in the paint time and again by David Lee.
So Pierce stepped up.
His final shooting numbers were incredible. Pierce finished 9-for-17 from the floor, 6-for-7 from beyond the arc and 9-for-10 from the line for 33 points, a season high. He added nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. In a dragged-out, low-scoring overtime, Pierce had the Celtics' first seven points before KG sealed the victory with a buzzer-beating jumper. It was Pierce who kept them in the game, battling on every play.
Listen to what coach Doc Rivers had to say after the Celtics' win that afternoon. It's one of the more candid, more revealing glimpses you'll ever have into Doc's basketball mind. There was no hiding what he really thought of Pierce's performance.
"Paul is having, since I've been here, the best year of his career, in my opinion," the C's coach said. "It might not show in his numbers, but … Paul is off the charts in what he's doing for our basketball team."
It seems like a crazy statement. Pierce is 32, and his athletic ability is naturally on the decline. And statistically speaking, Doc's words sound wildly counterintuitive — Pierce is threatening his career lows in scoring and rebounding, and his assists have fallen off as well.
But Pierce has discovered a secret about leadership in basketball. And it has nothing to do with numbers or individual accolades. It's about stepping up when your team needs you most.
The Celtics are blessed with three future Hall of Famers. That's the nucleus that won them a world championship in 2008, and it's why they're considered a favorite again for 2010. And on many teams with three megastars all sharing the attention, you see inevitable struggles for power between teammates. Players fight over minutes, they fight over shots, they fight over opportunities to be the hero.
The Celtics don't have that problem.
They know to defer to Pierce when the situation warrants it. Throughout the first month of this season, they've let Pierce step up and be their floor leader. He's responded in exactly the manner you'd expect a seasoned veteran who's led this team for a decade to do.
This is indeed the best Paul Pierce we've ever seen. But he's not better than ever because of talent, or athleticism, or individual results. He's better because he's found within himself the maturity to lead this team.
For the past two years, the Celtics have relied upon their Big Three. Now, they've found their Big One.