With Paul Pierce set to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later this summer, PaulPierce.net is taking a special look back at some of the best moments in his illustrious career.
In this first top-5 series, we’re looking specifically at what The Truth has done when the pressure is on and when every bucket could prove to be the end of the season or the start of an NBA Finals run.
We’re talking about playoff basketball.
With the No. 2 spot on the list, we looked at Pierce’s 38-point outing against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the 2008 NBA Finals.
With the top spot on this list, we’re going way back, to the moment The Truth stepped onto the playoff stage for the first time in his NBA career. It’s Paul’s 46-point outburst, which stood the test of time as his playoff career-high, against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of the 2001-02 first round.
Pierce Scores 46 in Series-Clinching Blowout Over Philly
At just 24 years old and playing in his first postseason NBA playoff series, Paul Pierce had the weight of a city and one of the NBA’s most storied franchises on his back.
In his fourth NBA season, No. 34 had already taken the leap to All-Star status. But now he had the Boston Celtics, 16-time NBA champions, in the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
Standing on the other side of their first round matchup was long-time east coast rival, the Philadelphia 76ers, just a season removed from an Eastern Conference title led by superstar Allen Iverson.
That’s some kind of pressure. The type that many NBA players would crumble under. But not Paul Pierce.
Boston was on the brink entering Game 5, however. After winning the first two games of the series at The Garden, the Celtics went to Philly with two chances to close the series, only to be turned aside both times and sent back home for a deciding Game 5.
In the first four games of the series, Paul had been good. Very good.
He posted double doubles in each of the first three games and entered Game 5 averaging 26.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. But in the decisive Game 5, Boston didn’t just need very good. They needed greatness, and that’s exactly what Paul Pierce delivered to give the Celtics their first playoff series win since 1992, Larry Bird’s final season in Boston.
Like Bird and the many greats that have donned Celtics green prior, The Truth rose to the occasion in legendary fashion, scoring a playoff career-high 46 points on 16-of-25 shooting in Boston’s dominating 120-87 win over the Sixers. No. 34’s 46 points marked the fifth-best scoring performance in Celtics playoff history.
Right off the bat, Paul looked unstoppable shooting the ball, hitting five of his six shot attempts in the first to score 14 of Boston’s 27 points as they took a five-point lead into the second quarter. The Sixers had no answer for Pierce’s hot start, with The Truth scoring in a variety of different ways, regardless of how good the defense on him was.
He was curling off pindowns, beating his matchup in isolation looks on the baseline and gashing the heart of the defense for layups at the rim. It was a do-it-all scoring effort from the star forward.
In the second quarter, the Sixers switched up their defense, hoping to stymie No. 34’s hot shooting. But nothing could stop The Truth, who poured in 15 more points in the second quarter to lead the Celtics to a 59-47 lead at halftime. Paul’s 29 first-half points put him just a point shy of Bird and John Havlicek’s shared franchise record.
Entering the third quarter, the Sixers threw even more attention No. 34’s way to prevent another hot start, but it ended up opening the door for Antoine Walker to get going. Walker finished the quarter with eight of his 26 points and the Celtics maintained their double-digit lead into the fourth quarter despite 29 points from Allen Iverson.
Though Philadelphia cut the lead down to single digits early in the fourth, Boston didn’t take long to deliver the knockout blow, going on a 13-2 run that broke the game wide open. While the Sixers had some success in the third quarter defending Paul, all that success was short-lived as The Truth managed to one-up himself with a dominant 15-point fourth quarter, including a perfect 4-of-4 from deep to close out the Sixers and the series.
In fact, the whole team was perfect from three, hitting all nine of their attempts from the perimeter in the fourth. Boston’s success from deep wasa trademark for them all season and they finishedthe regular season as the 11th most efficient team from beyond the arc. That proved to be a vital part of the team’s success against Philly as well, with the team shooting 65 percent from three for the game.
With the game largely in-hand with over six minutes to go, the celebration started early for the Celtics as they won the series 3-2.
“To have the game in hand and be able to soak up the atmosphere was a bonus — a great luxury,” Celtics head coach Jim O’Brien said.
The series win launched the Celtics into the second round for the first time in two decades and they bounced the Detroit Pistons there in 5 to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, where they ultimately fell to the New Jersey Nets in 6. However the playoff run was a valuable learning experience for Paul and his Boston teammates.
They went on to reach the playoffs each of the next three seasons, though never as deep as the 2002 run, not until the magical 2008 season that saw Paul use everything he’d learned in those previous playoff runs to reach superstardom, winning Finals MVP while pushing the Celtics to Banner 17, the hallmark of his Hall of Fame career.