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Paul Pierce Week: Paul becomes a Celtic

Posted by shawn cassidy on August 17, 2011 at 2:10 AM

Paul worked out for five pro teams. He didn’t blow anyone away, but he was a known quantity at this point. Where would he go? The 1998 NBA draft was a tough one to predict. It included intriguing big men like Michael Olowokandi, Dirk Nowitzki, Jonathan Bender and Paul's teammate LaFrentz. Athletic scorers like Vince Carter, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison were also available, as were floor leaders Baron Davis, Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and Mike Bibby. Paul was the best traditional small forward on the board, and possibly the best all-around player.

Still, when team after team announced its pick and Paul’s name remained uncalled, it was hard to understand what was going on. The Celtics could hardly believe their luck when he was still there at the 10th slot. Rick Pitino grabbed him without much hesitation. In retrospect, the draft was clearly a case of teams picking based on need, and none of the first nine clubs had a gaping hole at small forward. It was a little embarrassing for Paul, who sat in a room with lesser players and watched most of them walk out before him.

Paul’s NBA destination did not thrill him either. As an LA resident, hel was conditioned to hate the Celtics. He had also heard about Pitino’s grueling workouts. And personnel director Danny Ainge? Paul despised him for the way he tortured the Lakers. Now Ainge was his boss!

Paul’s rookie season was shortened to 50 games by a labor disagreement. When the players finally got back on the court, the Celtics didn’t have the horses for the playoff sprint. They won just 19 times. For most of the abbreivated season, Paul played in the shadow of third-year star Antoine Walker.

Paul led the Celtics in three-point shots and was second among rookies with a 16.5 scoring average. He was first, however, in angry scowls. Still smarting over slipping so far in the draft, Paul invented a shooting drill where he would move to different points around the perimeter and swish attempts beyond the arc. Each time he shot, he called out the name of a player that was drafted in front of him.

Before long, Paul emerged as Walker’s equal. He averaged 19.5 points in his second season and then pushed that number to 25.3 ppg in 2000-01. The Celtics had losing campaigns both years and finished out of the playoffs. Paul, meanwhile, nearly lost his life in September of 2000 when he was jumped by three assailants at a Boston nightclub. They stabbed him multiple times in the face and neck. Fortunately, Paul’s heavy leather jacket prevented potentially deadly injuries.

By 2001-02, Boston had a new coach, Jim O'Brien, and a roster competent enough to upend the Philadelphia 76ers—the defending East champs—and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. There, they fell to the New Jersey Nets in six games. Paul made an indelible impression in Game 3 of that series, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to lead Boston to a record-setting 21-point comeback victory. The Nets, however, hung on to win in six games. Paul ended the postseason as his team's leading scorer and ssecond-best rebounder and passer.

     Paul raised his game to a new level in 2001–02. He finished first in the NBA with 2,144 points and third in scoring at 26.1 ppg. He also placed third in three-pointers, with 210. More important, Paul was gaining a rep as a deadly clutch shooter. He and Walker helped Boston to a 44-win season. The Celtics ran into the Nets again in the playoffs, and the results didn’t impove. New Jersey swept Boston in the second round.

Paul capped a solid season with a tumultuous summer. Named to Team USA for the World Championship of Basketball, he got on the bad side of coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich and watched much of the action from the bench. America was equally dismal, finishing an embarrassing sixth in the tournament.

The Celtics lost their way in 2003-04 and tumbled into basketball obscurity. Doc Rivers came on as coach, but he and Paul didn’t see eye to eye. The team had instituted a youth movement and suddenly Paul—a veteran—was surrounded by unpolished youngsters who had no idea how to close out a game.

Through it all, Paul continued to pour in the points—23.0 ppg in 2003–04 (after Walker was traded) and 21.6 ppg in 2004–05. He enjoyed an MVP-caliber year in 2005-06, averaging a career-high 26.8 points and adding nearly seven rebounds and five assists a game. His supreme performance went completely unnoticed, as Boston slumped to 33-49 and missed the playoffs. Ironically, the Celtics thought they had Paul traded away the night before the 2005 draft, but the deal fell through. Following the 2005–06 season, the Celtics signed him to a three-year, $59 million contract extension.

Paul turned 30 the following year and was nearing the end of his rope. As the season wore on and the Celtics failed to reach the 25-win mark, Paul—who missed 30-plus games with a stress fracture in his foot—figured he’d be traded. He practically sealed his doom when he told the Boston Globe in an interview that he was a classic example of “a great player on a bad team."

Not surprisingly, Paul's relationship with his coach grew even more strained. But as frustrated as Rivers was, he began to believe that Paul could be a wonderful team player. Rivers pleaded with him to share the ball and bring a more positive outlook to the court. The young Celts were taking their cues from Paul. He was sulking, and they looked flat night after night.


Categories: Paul Pierce Week

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