Pierce, Bryant proving old dogs can learn new tricks
"I'm a small forward," he said with a long, smiling shake of his head.
He was selling himself short. Just as Bryant has become more than a shooting guard for the recovering Lakers, Pierce will be more than a small forward for his depleted Celtics, who lost point guard Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL on Sunday. The Celtics are going to be relying on Pierce to be their distributor as well as a threat to score. That happens to be the same role the Lakers are demanding of Bryant.
It is to his credit that Pierce clearly didn't want to receive accolades in advance, as if he wanted to prove he could keep the Celtics relevant before receiving commendation. He also didn't seek to be compared favorably to Bryant, who has taken it upon himself to amass 39 assists (a personal record) in the Lakers' last three wins.
"I'm only doing it because Rondo's hurt," Pierce said.
The fact remains: The two leading scorers of the league's two most important teams are now taking on much larger responsibility at the back ends of their careers. Let us count the ways in which Pierce's Celtics and Bryant's Lakers continue to mirror one another. Each side opened training camp with hope of winning the championship. Midseason finds both teams struggling to make the playoffs. To their rescue comes Pierce, 35, the No. 2 all-time scorer of the league's winningest franchise, and Bryant, 34, the leading scorer of the No. 2 franchise. Each is suddenly taking on a new playmaking role for his team, a role that would have been expected of neither one of them not so long ago.
"They're smart enough to do it, they're capable and it just tells you how good they are when they can change the way they play at any point in their careers," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "There [are] few people that can do that."
Who would have guessed one decade ago that either one of them would or could provide this kind of leadership? When they were at their best athletically, Bryant and Pierce were derided as scorers who were selfish to the detriment of their teams. Bryant infamously wanted to fulfill his potential while refusing to defer to Shaquille O'Neal. He won three championships with O'Neal and two more without him, emerging as the NBA's most ruthless finisher.
Even this year Bryant was accused of shooting too much. He was taking charge, as he saw it. His Lakers were in disarray and he was leading by doing what comes naturally. But that turns out to have been the problem for this Lakers team in particular: All of their stars were doing what they had always done, instead of adapting to fit one another.
All NBA stars talk about wanting a championship, as Rivers has long pointed out, but too many of them aren't willing to make the changes necessary to win the championship. Winning often turns out to be more trouble than it's worth for them. They want to win on their own terms, playing the same way they've always played, which is exactly the approach each of the four Lakers stars had been taking over the first half of their sorry season.
The tone changed last week when the Lakers called a team meeting that appears to have united their points of view. Bryant has shown leadership by changing his style dramatically. He has taken on the responsibility of creating plays for Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. If Bryant -- the most stubborn star in basketball -- is willing to adapt, then all of the other Lakers are surely going to follow his example.
Rivers understands what he is seeing in Los Angeles. He saw Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen make the same accommodations for one another when they joined together in Boston in 2007. He recognizes the changes made by Bryant, and he views it as a limited blueprint for what Pierce must do now for the Celtics.
"They have the ability to do it; otherwise, you wouldn't ask them to do it," Rivers said of Bryant and Pierce. "I won't put the burden that Kobe has on Paul. Paul will be more of a playmaker. But Kobe is, at times, their point guard -- and [Steve] Nash is more the shooter at times. We'll do a little bit of that, but not as much. In certain points of the game, Paul absolutely will be [the point guard] though."
While Bryant is breaking new ground by passing more than shooting, Pierce has played this role before for the Celtics. He assembled a triple-double Sunday to end a six-game losing streak and beat Miami even before he realized the extent of Rondo's injury. His playmaking skills evolved after Rivers became his coach in 2004 and insisted that Pierce learn how to release the ball with faith that the results would be better for his team and for himself. That revelation enabled Pierce to adapt to Garnett and Allen three years later.
Rivers intends to manage Pierce's role as a distributor without pushing him too far.
"He can be a facilitator every night, and that's what we'll make him," Rivers said. "Kobe brings the ball up the floor; Paul will do very little of that. That's just too much."
Rivers had spent Sunday night and Monday plotting a new system for the Celtics around Pierce's playmaking. He looked tired and yet he moved with purpose and energy as he sought out staff and players before practice Tuesday. He was in a hurry to get to work with his players.
"I'm doing good, actually," Rivers said of the loss of Rondo. "Stuff happens, you keep rolling. It's been a harder year, but every year has been hard -- some kind of injury or something."
Was he feeling stress to salvage the season?
"It's never stress," he said. "It's just work. It's funny, at times people will call me and say, 'Are you stressed?' And I say, 'No, I'm just working.' It's a crazy, nutty enjoyment, and pain at the same time. I mean, I enjoy it. Once the season starts, I think it's what you should do."
It's a challenge.
"It is," Rivers said. "In a bad way, not a good way."
The core of last year's conference finalist has been slashed in half now that Allen is in Miami and Rondo is waiting for surgery. And yet Rivers remains optimistic and buoyant because he still has Pierce. The investment he made in Pierce to become a playmaker eight seasons ago is still paying off for both of them.
When I kept trying to compare him to Bryant, however, Pierce demurred with uncharacteristic humility.
"He's still scoring at a high clip," Pierce said, waving off any idea that he and Kobe are on the same page.
It's true that Bryant (currently averaging 28.4 points) was leading the NBA in scoring before he made his recent transformation. It's also true that Pierce has struggled to create space while shooting 41.9 percent for his 18.7 points. But those details cannot diminish the bigger-picture impact of what they're doing now for their teams. Consider this for the sake of larger perspective: Twenty years ago, when speed was less important than size, Rivers believes Bryant and Pierce might have turned into traditional point guards toward the ends of their careers.
"Anybody with the feel that Kobe and Paul have can probably play any position they want to," Rivers said.
Next week they'll be meeting in a reunion of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in Boston. Bryant and Pierce won't guard each other much, but in one another they'll be able to recognize how far each has come. They should laugh at the very least that no one can accuse them of being black holes anymore. At the ends of their careers they're emitting light and creating hope.