As a native of Guadeloupe and a one-time high-flyer, Mickael Pietrus is still known to some by the nickname “Air France.” It may be a while before Air France is cleared for his next takeoff, however, as he is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery in July to his right knee.
In the meantime, a more fitting nickname for Pietrus might be canonnier, which loosely translates to “gunner.”
Pietrus has never been shy as a shooter, and is in fact one of the most insatiable volume shooters in the NBA. He has developed a reputation as one of the most free-firing role players around, averaging a 3-point shot every 4 1/2 minutes last season after being traded from Orlando to Phoenix; by comparison Gilbert Arenas, who led the league with 6.9 3-point attempts per game, managed barely one 3-pointer every five minutes last season.
The big question is whether Pietrus can balance his desire to shoot with the Celtics’ requirement that he play moderately tough defense.
The good news is that Pietrus at least hits those deep shots with some regularity. His career 35.9 percent mark from downtown is right at the league average for 2010-11. If he wasn’t at least average, it’s safe to say some coach along the way would have made Pietrus stop shooting or cut him loose altogether.
That volume of shots is the No. 1 reason the Celtics added Pietrus despite concerns over his knee, which led the Raptors to backtrack on a trade earlier in the offseason. Although Boston was a solid 3-point shooting team percentage-wise last season, posting the 11th-best mark in the NBA, they were third from the bottom in attempts with just 13.6 per game. Being really good at hitting 3′s isn’t helpful if you seldom take them.
Pietrus will be happy to fix that, but the Warriors and Suns, two of his previous teams, were not known for their defense and he seemed to struggle at times under Magic coach Stan Van Gundy‘s defensive demands.
Pietrus is now joining a team that builds its entire identity around defense. Can Pietrus, who sometimes lost focus on the defensive end and will now be somewhat slowed by a minor knee operation, make defense the priority it must be for a player to contribute to the Celtics?
The answer stands about 6 feet, 11 inches, weighs 220 pounds, wears No. 5 and likes to do crazy things like head butt basket standards and growl at opponents.
Love or hate his attitude, Kevin Garnett has always been able to get his teammates to play team defense. Even in Minnesota, where his offensive game was mocked as soft and critics wondered if he could ever lead a championship-winning team, Garnett was consistently able to get teams with questionable NBA talent to at least play like they cared.
Boston fans saw the results firsthand. When Ray Allen arrived, he was known as an almost peerless offensive player whose questionable one-on-one defense placed him a notch below the great shooting guards. Paul Pierce had the way, but not always the will, to shut down opposing small forwards.
By collecting three guys who had averaged more than 20 points each just a year earlier, everyone assumed the Celtics would score. They did that, but they also became a fearsome defensive unit, with Allen memorably holding his own at times in the NBA Finals against Kobe Bryant. Whether due to his glowering glare or some unseen behind-the-scenes work, Garnett was able to immediately make his teammates better individual defenders and thereby make the Celtics a stronger defensive team.
Expect Garnett, every bit as intense at age 35 and knowing this could be his last shot at another ring, to be just as forceful with Pietrus. With a little coaxing by KG, Air France could soon take flight again — only this time, it could be for the department of defense.