After watching Paul Pierce pour in 42 points against the L.A. Lakers last month, Shaquille O'Neal proclaimed:
"Paul Pierce is the truth. I knew he could play, but I didn't know he could play like this," O'Neal said as the Lakers narrowly escaped with a win over the Boston Celtics.
After Pierce turned in a 41-point performance that included a game-tying three-pointer with 13.8 seconds left against the Atlanta Hawks a couple of weeks later, teammate Randy Brown said that Pierce was showing "some Michael Jordan-like tendencies."
Comparing Pierce to Michael Jordan may be jumping the gun a bit, but the 23-year-old former Kansas University All-American, now in his third NBA season, has been steadily emerging as one of the premier players in the league.
Pierce certainly caught everyone's attention last month. First, the 6-foot-7 forward was named the NBA's Player of the Week for his performances in three games from March 19-25. It marked the first time since Reggie Lewis in April of 1992 that a member of the Celtics had received the honor.
Then, he became the first Celtics player to be named the NBA's Player of the Month since Larry Bird (seven times) earned the distinction 15 years ago.
Pierce averaged 30.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals in helping Boston to an 8-7 record during March and in keeping the Celts in the hunt for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The first Celtic since Bird (1987) to score 40 points or more in consecutive games, Pierce also produced back-to-back 42-point performances against the Lakers (March 13) and the Phoenix Suns (March 15).
"I think any time that a person has one big performance, you take your hat off to him. But when you string together performances like he has over the past two weeks, that's nothing short of remarkable," said teammate Bryant Stith. "He has to be considered one of the elite scorers in the league along with Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant and Jerry Stackhouse because only about five or six players are capable of doing what he's done these past two weeks."
Joining this season's previous Players of the Month Karl Malone, Bryant, Iverson and Tracy McGrady Pierce says the honor serves to validate the great strides he's made as a player.
"When you talk about superstars around the league, my name doesn't get mentioned with those guys all that much," said Pierce. "The only guys who have gotten this award are the ones who people talk about all the time. I think after getting this award, people will recognize me for that."
Pierce often leaves opposing teams perplexed. Sag off him when he's on the perimeter and he can knock down the three. Let him inside and he'll undoubtedly find a way to get to the rim.
He's been getting less and less breathing room as more and more teams are realizing what an offensive threat he poses.
Still, Pierce keeps finding ways to score, showing a great propensity for sparking a crucial run or knocking down a shot in the clutch.
Displaying an increased confidence and maturity, he says he's been making a conscious effort not to take as many bad shots as he has in the past.
"I'm trying to be more aggressive," said Pierce. "If I'm going to go down, I want to go down shooting. Every night I'm going to get double-teamed, so I have to find different ways to score when they trap me. I've made adjustments to my game. I'm not forcing a lot of things, and I'm just trying to keep it within the offense."
Pierce's achievements this season are all the more amazing considering the near-fatal stabbing he received in a nightclub incident in Boston's Theatre District on Sept. 25.
The accident forced Pierce to miss the first part of training camp. Though the nearly dozen stab wounds have long since healed, the resulting scar tissue has prevented him from lifting weights.
Former Celtics president and coach Rick Pitino often referred to Pierce's quick recovery as nothing short of miraculous and said that losing him this season would have been a devastating blow to the franchise.
"I would have to say (receiving Player of the Month) does surprise me," said Pierce. "Before my incident, I knew I was capable of coming out and doing this. But after the incident, I didn't know how my body would react or what kind of physical shape or mental shape I would be in for the season. I think everything happens for a reason. I am fortunate to regain my health back to the point where I was before the incident."