Pierce got a perfect shot on the final play against the Spurs.
In the wake of the Celtics' 87-86 loss to the Spurs on Wednesday, after Pierce's final shot rimmed out and ended Boston's five-game win streak, there was considerable talk about the quality of Pierce's look. The line of questioning clearly came as a surprise to Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Pierce himself, who at first dismissed the idea that the last play was somehow flawed, then became gradually more incredulous as they were pressed on the topic.
"This type of stuff is not really [scripted]," Pierce said. "You don't have an idea of what's going to happen in those situations. You get in those pressure situations, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. The thing is, I'm not going to second-guess my decision. I thought I got a great shot, created some space at the free throw line. Some days they fall, some days they don't."
On the play in question, Pierce and Kevin Garnett operated a pick and roll near the elbow. They forced the action they expected when Spurs center Tim Duncan switched on the screen, leaving him guarding Pierce on the perimeter with the clock winding down.
Pierce bluffed into the lane, putting Duncan on his heels, then leaned back and attempted a reasonably open jumper. The shot was slightly off-line, sending home a disappointed TD Garden crowd.
Rivers said it was the play called in the huddle, although he would have preferred Pierce initiate it sooner.
"We liked it," Rivers said. "We told him they'd switch, we'd get a matchup and attack early. That's the only thing we didn't do. We had Duncan guarding Paul Pierce. I think you would take that."
Basketball is such a fluid game, "perfect" is a subjective term. In baseball there are perfect games. In football there is a perfect passer rating, if you can figure out how to calculate it. In golf, there was Kim Jong-Il.
The ideal shot for Pierce, hypothetically, would have been a wide-open layup from about two feet away. Unless the extremely well-coached Spurs suddenly morphed into the Charlotte Bobcats, though, that was not going to happen.
The primary concerns over the final play seemed to be the Spurs' switch on defense and the Celtics' lack of cutters.
The first was a non-issue to anyone who watches NBA basketball regularly. Pretty much every team switches on possessions when the clock is winding down in a tight game. As opposed to the early quarters, when the flow of the game makes it better to keep matchups big-on-big, small-on-small, in game-winning situations the accepted knowledge is that it is better just to get a hand in the shooter's face.
Another concern, apparently, was the absence of much motion by the Celtics beyond the Pierce-Garnett pick and roll. Avery Bradley decimated the Spurs with his off-ball cuts; maybe he could have gotten into the lane for another open layup.
That might have looked better drawn up in Hickory High coach Norman Dale's rolled-up playbook, but there was a significant problem with such a play: The Spurs had a foul to give. If Bradley had beaten his man, the Spurs likely would have fouled him or Pierce before Pierce could have even made the pass. That would have left the Celtics inbounding the ball from the sideline with only a second or two on the clock, leaving the Celtics with limited options to get off a good shot.
The foul to give also may have contributed to Pierce's reluctance to drive, Rivers suggested. Pierce may have assumed Duncan would give the foul and force the Celtics into the same limited side-out scenario, although Pierce did not directly address the foul-to-give situation after the game.
Pierce's shot did come a little late, eliminating the chance of a Celtics putback attempt, but that issue only came up because Pierce missed. Had he taken the shot earlier and hit it, he might have been criticized for leaving time on the clock for the Spurs to answer. Every play in basketball is a balancing act. Both the offense and defense have to give away something to get something they deem better, so there are no airtight plays. On that play, Pierce opted to give the Spurs no chance to respond.
"You just play the game and you see what happens," Pierce said. "You don't know what to expect. There's numerous possibilities of things that can happen when you come off the pick and roll. Obviously, they switched. They could have trapped, Stephen Jackson could have stayed on me, but that's not what I'm thinking about. You play a lot of this game on instincts. The things that happen, they happen on the fly and happen so quick. I like the shot that I took."
It was a shot Pierce has taken and made numerous times in his career, many off exactly the same screen and roll action with Garnett, many against big men who had switched on the screen.
"Listen, Paul Pierce taking a step back at the elbow, that's not a bad option, either," Rivers said. "I just wish we could've done it a little bit earlier."
This was not a sign of some troublesome trend that could haunt the Celtics down the stretch or in the playoffs. This was a well-planned, well-executed play that did not generate the intended result.
Pierce is not perfect, although the body of evident he has built up over the latter half of his career may suggest otherwise. His final shot against the Spurs, however, was as close to perfect as one could expect.