As much as the Celtics are supposed to be struggling, and as much as I root for the Pacers, I’m just not seeing an upset special when Boston hosts Indiana tonight. The C’s have had a day to rest, an extra day to think about how they got booed by their own fans in a blowout loss to Memphis on Wednesday. Indiana is coming off a win over the Sixers, and they’re getting Danny Granger back from a one-game suspension, but still, my gut says a motivated Boston squad will make an example of the Pacers before Sunday’s potentially season-defining test at Cleveland.
If tonight’s game does go down to the wire, however, who will the Celtics trust to win it for them? A couple days ago DimeMag.com’s reader poll asked: Down two, one possession left, who gets the ball? The options were Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. In a surprise — at least to me — Pierce narrowly edged Ray by just two votes out of a couple hundred. I thought The Truth would take it by a much larger margin.
There’s a very good chance this was just a case of short memories. After all, the poll went up not long after Ray had knocked down two clutch three-pointers to help Boston fend off the Wizards in a national TV game. And the night before the poll was posted, Pierce missed a jumper at the buzzer that could have forced overtime in Boston’s loss to Milwaukee. Plus, Pierce has been banged-up and obviously not at his usual level of performance most of the season.
Before this season, when I ranked the NBA’s best go-to players, I had Pierce at No. 3, ahead of LeBron, Duncan, Dirk, Brandon Roy and ‘Melo, among others. Only Kobe and D-Wade were higher. Arguing against the false perception that Pierce suddenly emerged as an elite clutch scorer in Boston’s championship run of 2008, I wrote:
Pierce isn’t brand-new to this go-to guy thing. Six years before this new Big Three formed, Pierce was leading the Celtics to the conference finals, putting up 26 points a night at 24 years old while carrying a roster that had Eric Williams and end-of-the-road Kenny Anderson in the starting five. Through thick and thin, he’s going on a solid decade as The Man for his team, a title only a couple of players can actively lay claim to, and that experience is on full display when Boston needs it most. The ’08 Finals was not Pierce’s breakout, it was his coronation.
That’s not to say Ray hasn’t put in years of being a go-to guy himself. Like Pierce, he carried some subpar teams in Seattle, after making his bones in Milwaukee. And since joining the Celtics, Ray has hit more than his share of game-winners, game-tying buckets, and game-icing free throws. Because Doc Rivers is one of the NBA’s best coaches at drawing up plays to get good shots for the right guy in crunch time, Ray can be more than a decoy and as much of a threat for the defense as Pierce in any situation. And if the Celtics need to hit a three, then Ray is definitely the first option.
Otherwise, though, I still think Pierce is definitively the right call when Boston needs a clutch bucket. But maybe Pierce’s injuries have become too much. Or maybe Ray’s obsessive work ethic and attention to his body — and Pierce’s, well, not-so-obsessive regimen — is beginning to reveal itself as the two superstars move farther into their 30’s.
I still believe what I wrote in that go-to guys piece: “No matter how good Rondo gets, no matter how large Garnett‘s presence may be, no matter how many open shots it means for Ray Allen, if you’re defending the Celtics at a time when they need to score, your first priority is Pierce. And if he doesn’t deliver, it feels more like his mistake than your accomplishment.”
At this point, who is more clutch: Pierce or Ray?