The first in a long career full of clutch fourth-quarter plays for Brooklyn Nets veteran star Paul Pierce came when he was in the ninth grade, as he tipped in a game-winning buzzer-beater in junior varsity ball.
"I felt a drive, it was just the beginning," recalled Pierce at the Nets' Tuesday morning shootaround. "Once you get a taste of it, you enjoy those moments, and it grew and manifested to where I loved those moments."
It's the same kind of fourth-quarter magic that Pierce used to overpower the Toronto Raptors down the stretch in Game 1 Saturday, giving the Nets a 1-0 lead in their first-round playoff series. He had a moderate 15 points that day – but nine of them were in that critical final quarter and led directly to the victory.
On the morning of Game 2 in Toronto, the confident 36-year-old veteran, making his 11th appearance in the postseason, tried to explain how one acquires such late-game poise. His explanation implied he's motivated to display a lot more of it in this series, especially in the frenzied Air Canada Centre atmosphere where he's playing the villain role.
"It's just in the DNA," quipped Pierce to a large group of reporters, trying to shed light on a question he's been asked numerous times over his 15-year NBA career. "Everybody don't have it. Everybody isn't born with it. You can't buy it at Costco or Walgreens, it's in the DNA. It's in there. There's nothing I can do to let it go. I can't lose it. I can't break it. It's in there."
With Toronto trailing by three Saturday late in the fourth quarter, Brooklyn's Kevin Garnett set a pick for Pierce, who got off a three-pointer before late-closing Patrick Patterson sped over to defend him. He drained it and then went on to score the Nets' next six points too, securing the win. The Raptors have made adjustments to deal with the veteran NBA star, hoping they can force Pierce to have to guard them more than he had to on Saturday.
"He's an NBA champion, he will be a Hall of Famer," said Patterson. "[He has an] ability to hit clutch shots from spaces out on the perimeter, his ability to handle the ball and use his strength and use his skills to draw fouls and hit tough shots and get to the lane. He can do so much at that position so he causes havoc for me and Amir [Johnson]. The best we can do is just move our feet and get a contest every time."
When Saturday's game was over, Pierce played to the loud, passionate and dismayed Toronto fans as he left the court, smiling and waving to them, tossing his headband up to them.
"A lot of players shy away from the moment," said Garnett on Tuesday. "Paul looks to see himself in a different light. He comes out and plays like it. I've seen him do it countless times. I've seen him look for the moment to score versus running from it. He wants it, he takes it on."
The 36-year-old was acquired by the Nets, along with Garnett, in a 2013 blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics. He seemed unsettled in Brooklyn at first after having spent his entire career with the Celtics and winning a championship there in 2008. After getting closure from playing against the Celts in Boston in January, Pierce has hit a different gear.
Pierce has played in 137 playoff games throughout his career, averaging 20.9 points. His lengthy list of clutch playoff performances includes a 41-point game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008. He led a massive late-game comeback versus the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals and over the New Jersey Nets in the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals.
His fourth quarter heroics on Saturday have shone a bright light this week on the Nets' veteran playoff experience versus the relative inexperience of the young Raptors, a team that hasn't been to the post-season since 2008, so most of its players are doing this for the first time.
"It's understanding, not getting rattled, understanding how to stay focused through maybe bad calls, focused even though the crowd is going crazy, just maintaining that poise," said Pierce. "As a young team with less experience, sometimes you can get rattled in those situations. But when you've been in those situations before, you remember them and how you did, and you try to repeat it."