Finals Scouting Report: Paul PierceDepending on the outcome, Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant will most likely win the 2008 Finals MVP. In my previous post I broke down Bryant's performance in the first five games of the Finals and compared his numbers in this series and the Western Conference Finals to the numbers that LeBron James posted against Boston in this year's playoffs and San Antonio in last year's Finals.
The Celtics have three future Hall of Famers--Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen--so they employ a balanced offensive attack that is not overly reliant on any one player. That is why Pierce is averaging a playoff career-low 19.8 ppg this postseason; Pierce's field goal percentage (.445) and three point field goal percentage (.366) are both higher than his career playoff averages (.422 and .325 respectively). In the Finals, Pierce has increased his scoring (22.8 ppg), field goal percentage (.453) and three point field goal percentage (.429). He enjoys a matchup advantage against every Laker defender other than Kobe Bryant. Pierce's mobility has been limited somewhat since he injured his knee in game one but that has not stopped him from driving to the hoop and scoring, drawing fouls or passing to open teammates (he is second on the team with a 5.6 apg average in the Finals).
The Lakers cannot commit waves of defenders to Pierce the way that the Celtics swarm Bryant, because such a plan would not work due to the presence of Allen and Garnett. Allen is averaging 19.2 ppg on .475 field goal shooting (including .455 from three point range) in the Finals. Garnett is only averaging 16.6 ppg on .402 field goal shooting but if the Lakers ignored him to trap Pierce then Garnett would feast off of wide open shots. Much like the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, the Celtics have shown a decided tendency to feature the perimeter scorer who is not being guarded by Bryant; Allen has scored most of his points while being checked by Sasha Vujacic and Derek Fisher, while Pierce has abused Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Walton. Unless the Lakers clone Bryant prior to game six, this trend figures to continue. When Bryant has been on Pierce he has guarded him straight up except for screen/roll situations, when the Lakers' rotations have been weak or nonexistent. Bryant has sometimes received help when Pierce catches the ball in the post, though it is not necessarily clear that Bryant needs help in that situation.
Pierce has asked for and received the defensive assignment versus Bryant at key times during this series and he has done a very respectable job guarding the league's best player, just like he did a good job earlier in the playoffs defending against LeBron James, the league's second best player. Of course, Pierce has received plenty of help in both instances. So far, Pierce has been able to guard the smaller Bryant one on one in the post but when Bryant receives the ball on the wing and attacks Pierce there is always at least one help defender lurking nearby.
Here is a look at Pierce's game by game performance in the 2008 Finals:
Game one: 22 points, .700 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 98-88 win.
Comment: Pierce had to be carried off of the court and wheeled to the locker room after injuring his knee in the third quarter but he quickly came back and made two big three point shots to give the Celtics the lead for good.
Game two: 28 points, .563 field goal shooting, five turnovers in a 108-102 win.
Comment: The Celtics built a 24 point lead and then held on for dear life as the Lakers roared back to get as close as 104-102 in the last minute. Pierce made all four of his three point shots and contributed eight assists.
Game three: 6 points, .143 field goal shooting, three turnovers in a 87-81 loss.
Comment: Pierce struggled throughout this game, leading to speculation that his knee injury might be worse than initially reported. Some suggested that the long cross country flight and short turnaround between games played a role in his poor performance; if that was really the case then Pierce may also struggle in Tuesday's game six as the series shifts back East.
Game four: 20 points, .462 field goal shooting, four turnovers in a 97-91 win.
Comment: The Lakers built a 24 point lead but unlike the Celtics in game two they could not completely hold off their opponent's furious comeback. Pierce had seven of the Celtics' 15 assists and he played good defense against Bryant, who still scored 10 points and had three assists in the fourth quarter; putting Pierce on Bryant late in the game was important because Pierce did not need double team help in the post, which meant that the other Celtics could stay at home on their men.
Game five: 38 points, .455 field goal shooting, five turnovers in a 103-98 loss.
Comment: Pierce's monster game was not quite enough to lead the Celtics to victory. He had eight of Boston's 20 assists and shot 16-19 from the free throw line. Bryant stole the ball from Pierce twice in the fourth quarter and both of those thefts led to key Lakers scores.
Pierce has led the Celtics in scoring in three of the five games and has been their main playmaker other than point guard Rajon Rondo. He has made timely three point baskets and he has done a good job of getting into the paint to create shots for himself and his teammates. Pierce has been very deadly in screen/roll plays with Garnett, particularly in game five. Barring a scoring explosion by Allen in a series clinching victory, Pierce appears to have the inside track for the Finals MVP if the Celtics ultimately prevail over the Lakers.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM