The location: TD Garden, Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, on a day that would be capped off with Paul Pierce’s No. 34 being raised to the rafters in a memorable jersey retirement ceremony.
Watching it unfold, and learning more about Pierce, I was struck by two strong links between how Pierce was described and my perception of two things that have made New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady unique.
“He understood how a team was built. In 2010, even though it was reported, it hasn’t been discussed enough in my opinion, but Paul took $7.7 million less in that year to help us win a championship down the road. And so he was a partner. He was more than a player. He was a partner, as he worked with us. He worked with ownership. We had the conversation in 2007, and it was, ‘We better get our job done, or we have to find a place for him to help him win.’ He was a partner with us and I’ll always be grateful for that.” — Celtics GM and director of basketball operations Danny Ainge
While Brady has been compensated well over the years, he’s never been compelled to hold the team up in negotiations with an insistence of being the game’s top-paid player. In some ways, his contract — and the way the sides timed up extensions with two years remaining on his deal — has almost been like a mortgage that the team has drawn on. In that sense, he’s been a partner to the Patriots as well, making financial decisions that have given the franchise the tools and flexibility to put the best team around him.
Sunday was a forever type of day, the kind those inside TD Garden will cherish. Sure, it would have been nice if Brad Stevens’ team had done more to challenge LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but nobody paid for this season’s most expensive ticket because of the basketball game at hand. People shelled out big money, in some cases thousands of dollars, to experience Pierce’s day. And the Celtics honored him right.
Celtics have serious work to do after the All-Star break
“We bumped heads a couple times, but at the end of the day, I’m sitting in my office and Paul walks in and says, ‘Hey, we’re good. We’re going to do this together.’ From a coach, I thank you, because we live in a time now where when a star player will allow a coach to coach him, that’s why you win.” — former Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Chad Ochocinco told the story about his time with the club and how the first team meeting of 2011 was one in which Bill Belichick was particularly hard on Brady. Ochocinco thought it was a joke, noting that it set a tone for him. That tone was obvious: If the star of the team is taking such hard coaching, everyone else better fall in line. Ochocinco said from that point on, he was walking on eggshells. Brady’s willingness to take that coaching, like Pierce, is probably one main reason Bill Belichick said at Super Bowl LII, “There’s no quarterback I’d rather have playing for my team than Tom Brady. I’m glad I have him.”
There’s some debate about where Pierce stands among the best offensive players in Celtics history. Some people, including Hall of Famer Robert Parish, who flew in for the festivities, believe Pierce eclipsed everyone including the great Larry Bird. Others call Pierce the franchise’s best “pure scorer” while admitting Bird’s all-around greatness surpassed The Truth’s. Bird won three MVPs and three rings. He accomplished more.
The Paul Pierce number retirement Sunday was as special as any Celtics fan could have wanted. Pierce was the picture of gratitude and happiness, cherishing the moment and its magnitude. But you and I knew the truth about the The Truth: The fans were the truly fortunate ones, watching him grow into the quintessence of everything we want a Boston athlete to be: tough, bold, clutch, appreciative, and ultimately a deserving champion.
It was enough to almost — almost — make you forget the debacle of a basketball game that was the prelude to the ceremony. You’d hope the current Celtics would have paid homage to Pierce by battling LeBron James and the Cavaliers for every inch of the parquet.
Instead, their performance in a 121-99 loss to the remodeled Cavs looked like an ill-considered homage to Pierce’s early career running mate, Antoine Walker, on one of his most aggravating nights.
Kyrie Irving looking for the Celtics response to recent losses
The Celtics missed open shots (they were 10 for 38 from 3-point range), handled the basketball as if it were scalding to the touch, and played defense as though it was nothing more than an interlude between jacked-up threes. It was Pierce’s night, but the basketball game was a testimonial to the worst of Toine.
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The performance was ugly. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon. The Celtics have lost six of eight games since returning from their mid-January voyage to London to play the Sixers. Included among those losses is the 22-point loss to the Cavs and a 20-point loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors.
The Celtics are 40-18, an excellent record. But they’ve lost as many times in the last 14 games (eight) as they did in their first 34 games. And they achieved that 26-8 start despite the trauma of losing Gordon Hayward in the opener. No, this is not trending the right way.
Brad Stevens warned us about this. During the Celtics’ ascent this season — even during the 16-game winning streak that followed the 0-2 start — he has said often that the team wasn’t as playing as well as the record would indicate.
Perhaps what has happened lately is just regression to the mean. Perhaps the All-Star break is coming at the right time, and the Celtics will rest and regroup and be the team in the second half that they appeared to be for the season’s first few months. Perhaps Stevens will repair what ails them, given that he’s already recognized it. That seems a reasonable expectation.
Whether this recent trend merely proves to be a lull, an inevitable valley before the rise back toward the peak, this much is true: It cannot be dismissed as such right now. The loss to the Cavs was not a one-off lousy performance. They were nearly as bad against the Raptors, a tough and talented team that they’d better be taking seriously.
Their ball movement, a satisfying strength earlier this season, has stagnated. When Kyrie Irving goes one-on-one, that’s fine; he’s Kyrie Irving, one of the best one-on-one players we’ve ever witnessed. But when Marcus Morris or Terry Rozier gets too caught up in isolation ball, that’s a problem.
They’re fine players. They’re better players when they get their points in the flow of the offense, rather than trying to force it. And don’t even get me started on Semi Ojeyele, 3-point bomber. He makes me miss Marcus Smart’s knockdown shooting by comparison.
The upcoming break may aid Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the first- and second-year future cornerstones who have run headlong into the midseason wall. The NBA season is a grind, even for those with young legs. But the Celtics are going to require some rejuvenation from them in the second half.
Sure, help might be on the way, via the buyout market, from an increased role from sly but slow Greg Monroe, the return of tough tone-setter Smart, or even from Hayward, whom I will believe is coming back this season until the Celtics tell us he is not.
But if the Celtics are going to fulfill that promise of the 16-game winning streak, or of those comeback home wins over the Warriors and Rockets, or of all of the other moments in the season’s first half that made us believe a trip to the Finals was not only possible but probable, it’s those who are already here who must make it happen.
The Cavaliers, with James orchestrating the show and Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson downright embarrassing the home team Sunday, played like they’d been together for years. The Celtics, meanwhile, played like they’d just swapped out six players for four others at the trading deadline and were just getting to know each other.
It wasn’t just an ugly way to pay homage to Pierce. It was a disservice to themselves. The Celtics have been a joy for so much of this season. They can be that again, and they probably will. Their leeway extends to the All-Star break. After that, it’s time to get it right again.