The Paul Pierce Pick
The real lesson from last night's blowout in Dallas is that the third and final stage in the evolution of Pierce's game is to have him set picks for the point.
Paul Pierce is by nature a one-on-many offensive player. Ideally, he likes to get the ball behind the three point line. If his man leans off him to protect the drive, he has an open three pointer. If his man defends the shot, Pierce can drive around. If they double team him, he can find the open man. That's his natural play and he can do it blindfolded.
This year, Doc Rivers has been trying to extend Pierce's game with two enhancements. First, he wants Pierce to run the wings on the fast break and be a finisher. Second, he wants Pierce coming around a sequence of screens for an open look or a backdoor cut. Both of those things will serve to increase Pierce's effectiveness and Boston's winning chances.
There are subsidiary reasons why Rivers wants to implement these two particular strategies. First, getting Pierce on the wings for some easy baskets rewards players for fast breaks, and therefore rewards good outlet passes, and therefore rewards defensive rebounds, which are the most important aspect to a fast break. Many players, especially good rebounding guards such as Pierce, have a tendency to grab the board and then bring it upcourt themselves. Big men are taught repeatedly to look for an outlet right away but guards and some small forwards figure they can bring it up at least as well as the point. Rivers wants Pierce, Boston's second-best defensive rebounder behind Raef LaFrentz, to send the quick outlet after a defensive rebound rather than dribble it up himself for a half-court set. Getting Pierce to run the wing rather than trek it up the middle is Doc's plan to encourage the outlet from everybody.
Second, he wants Pierce coming around screens and making hard cuts because he knows the opposition will collapse two or more players on the rolling Pierce, leaving at least one screener wide open and near the basket. It is not necessarily so much to get Pierce the ball more often, it is to maximize the advantage Boston has.
Namely: the Celtics have one lone superstar in Paul Pierce and the right thing to do is to use him as a decoy.
Run him off screens. If the decoy works, someone is open. If it doesn't, then your superstar is going one-on-one in great position, much closer to the basket, and catching the ball in rhythm, rather than having to dance with the ball out by the three point line.
The subsidiary reason for this, of course, is to grow Boston's passing game. On an ideal half court possession, every player touches the ball and the play ends with a layup and a frustrated opponent.
In other words, Doc wants the team to run and to pass, and the way he is getting his team to do that is to get Paul to throw outlets and come off screens.
But there's something missing. Why isn't Rivers using Pierce to set picks?
I may have missed it here and there though I think I've watched every single minute of game film this season at least once. He certainly sets some screens sometimes. But I can't remember the last time I saw him set a pick for the man with the ball. (Can you? Please remind me.) In any event, it should happen more frequently. Is there any reason why it's a bad idea?
Perhaps Rivers feels that would bring too much pressure on the ball handler. If the ball handler were a rookie like Delonte West or a streaky second-year player like Marcus Banks, that could be understandable. But with Hall of Famer Gary Payton holding the ball? Nothing to worry about.
With Pierce setting a pick, the on-the-ball defender would have no choice but to sag behind the pick, because the primary weapon (the decoy, remember?) is Pierce, and they can't take the chance of a well-guarded Payton getting the ball to Pierce for an easy hoop.
1) Pierce could roll off the pick into a good post position, where he can spin on his defender or take his patented fadeaway or hit the weak-side cutter.
2) Pierce could pop off the pick into a wide-open three pointer, sticking a dagger into the opposing coach's heart.
3) Pierce could just set the pick and stand there as both defenders wait for the roll or pop but instead get to watch the trajectory of an open Payton jump shot.
Is this something Rivers has tried and found not to work? Or is it something that either he or Pierce is reluctant to do? If so, they should take a good look at the Mavericks game last night, not to notice anything the Celtics did, but to notice what the Mavericks did.
As Pierce noted after the game: "They really put you in a bind with Nowitzki at the power forward because he's really like a guard. He's a tough guard. You get confused when he sets pick-and-rolls."
Pierce also is more of a forward than a guard. He rebounds like a three and can post up like a three, but he also shoots like a two and brings the ball up like a one. In any event, he's big enough and agile enough to pose a threat to whoever rotates to guard him in the post and he's accurate enough to be deadly on the pop. And boy is he tough. Why not use him to confuse the opposition?
The ballhandler doesn't even have to be Payton. Jiri Welsch or Ricky Davis could accomplish the same feat. Welsch would be a terrific choice because he can drain the open jumper if the defender sags. Davis would be a terrific choice because he can drive against the retreating defenders and stop on a dime to stick a jumpshot. Either one could make the pass to a popping or rolling Pierce for a post-up against a smaller or slower defender or a jump shot against a retreating defender.
And if Boston is able to wrestle Baron Davis out of New Orleans, then oh my. The Baron/Paul pick-and-roll will strike as much terror into the hearts of opposing coaches as anything in the league. It would be a case of pick your green poison.
Finally, using Pierce to set the picks also fits in with the #1 plan of Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge: an up-tempo team that passes the ball well in half court sets too. It is the third and probably final evolution in Pierce's offensive game. He can run, he can pass, and he can cut. Can he set the strong pick?