Raptors must counter Pierce with athleticism

Trailing 0-2 as the series shifts to Washington, the Raptors face an improbable but not impossible road to the second round. (Photo: Frank Gunn/CP)

Paul Pierce dominated the narrative leading up to the opening tip of his Washington Wizards’ first-round series against the Toronto Raptors. Oh, he ultimately backtracked a bit and tried to clarify his claim the Raptors didn’t have the “‘It’ that makes you worried,” but after Washington’s game one victory on Saturday afternoon, he came out and sat at the podium in a suit and tie, looking like a defense lawyer who’d just won a big case, and declared that he didn’t mind being the villain. He better not, because that’s exactly how Raptors fans are going to treat him.

The veteran forward led the Wizards to a 93-86 overtime victory on Saturday. And while the “it” he referenced last week can still only be defined in the you-know-it-when-you-see-it sense, Pierce’s game-high 20 points showed that when it comes to delivering important plays at key times, he’s still got it.

That impeccable timing and sense of the moment are the visible results of a vast and valuable well of playoff experience. Pierce is like the old man at the YMCA for your Saturday-morning run, coming up with the big steal or block, or scoring the game-winning basket to sit a group of athletic teenagers down as he bellows out, “Who got next?”

It wasn’t the first time Pierce turned the Air Canada Centre into his own personal YMCA. No need to remind Raptors fans that The Truth blocked Kyle Lowry’s potentially series-winning shot at the end of game seven last season to send the Raptors home as he cried out “who got next?” in the direction of the Miami Heat.
So how did that experience manifest in game one?

It was the crafty old man in his black socks (are you sure those weren’t church socks)—who can’t jump the way he used to and is a step slower than everybody else on the court—using herky-jerky pump fakes and escape dribbles to clear space and knock down shots. Pierce was 7-of-10 from the floor, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc, and somehow managed to pull down more rebounds than four Raptors players, including two starters. The crafty veteran read the angles, read the gaps and used the side and baselines as help defenders, clutching, grabbing and holding his way around the hardwood on the defensive end to help his team win the game.

In short, he showed the value of playoff experience—an asset you can’t buy, no matter how much money you make. Pierce has now played 149 playoff games while the entire Raptors squad entered the series with 230 playoff games split between 13 players.

So whether you’re a first-time playoff viewer or a veteran yourself, keep an eye on the old man. His game may not be perfect—and it’s certainly far from pretty—but it is effective. And also look for the Raptors’ response as they search for a way to neutralize the street smarts Pierce will use to try to beat them. Toronto needs to expose Pierce physically to come out on top in the series, using quickness and athleticism to trump craftiness.

This is going to be a long series, one that will give Toronto’s players plenty of opportunities to learn and gain some playoff experience of their own—hopefully building toward the franchise’s first-ever win in a seven-game series.

In the end, the Raptors want to stand over Pierce and say, “We’ve got some experience now, too. Who’s got next?”

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