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Former Celtic Defies Age, Defenses

Brooklyn Nets' Paul Pierce watches the second half of the NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic after injuring his right shoulder during the third quarter, Sunday, April 13, 2014, in New York. The Nets won 97-88. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Brooklyn Nets' Paul Pierce watches the second half of the NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic after injuring his right shoulder during the third quarter, Sunday, April 13, 2014, in New York. The Nets won 97-88. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Twenty years later, Paul Pierce’s first impression remains fresh in Jason Collins’ mind.

It was the summer of 1994, and Collins was getting ready to face Pierce’s team at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. Collins, then a 15-year-old big man, had much bigger concerns than Pierce.

“Mind you, it was Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett playing on the same team. And our focus was on KG,” said Collins, who was then a high school sophomore faced with the arduous task of going up against a high school phenom. Garnett was 17-years-old, and less than a year away from being drafted into the NBA.

But once the game started, the focus shifted. The 16-year-old Pierce started making shots. Easy ones. Difficult ones that Pierce made look easy. The kid just had a knack for creating his shot.

“Paul was killing us,” Collins said. “And we looked at the coach, and were like, ‘Why didn’t we scout this guy?’ ”

Twenty years later, Collins looks at Pierce and laughs. A lot has changed. Pierce and Garnett are grizzled veterans, destined for the hall of fame, but they are trying to find a little more glory as the Nets open the playoffs against the Raptors this weekend.

Athleticism has faded. Vertical leaps have shortened. But with Pierce, one thing endures.

“He’s just one of those players where it seems like he’s always able to get a shot off,” said Collins, who chased him as a defender for years when he was a Net and Pierce was a Celtic. “With his footwork, his pump fakes, it’s always something. He’s always been one of those players where you think you’re there to close out and contest his shot. But he still gets it off, and he’s knocking down big shots.”

At 6-feet-7, Pierce was never viewed as athletically gifted by NBA standards — not even in his physical prime. But at 36, with whatever advantages youth gave him long gone, he’s still able to consistently get off his shot when it matters most.

How is that possible?

It starts with his mindset. Whatever Pierce lacks physically, he more than makes up for with a level of self-confidence that would be absurd, if he hadn’t spent all these years backing his words up.

“I don’t have the same step I had, 10 or 12 years ago,” Pierce said in February, explaining how he’s remained effective. “A lot of times, I’m just trying to take advantage of different cuts, play off of different screens, just kind of use my basketball IQ out here. There a lot of guys who probably run faster, jump higher, but I feel like I have one of the great basketball minds in the game. I’ll figure it out.”

He has, eclipsing the 20-point mark 11 times this season. Pierce’s offensive game is based on deception. He plays at a slow pace, fooling defenses until, at just the right moment, he flashes a burst of athleticism that nobody saw coming.

“He plays the game at his own speed, and makes everyone else adjust,” Nets long-time radio analyst Tim Capstraw said of Pierce. “You don’t think he has it, because he doesn’t use it much. But on occasion, he can surprise you and slam it pretty good. He’s deceivingly athletic.”

When he’s not surprising defenders, he’s baffling them with an arsenal of dribble moves and fakes that he’s spent years perfecting. Pierce’s repertoire of basketball tricks is so extensive — if not always beautiful — that he can fake out opponents into thinking he’ll drive one way, and referees into believing there’s contact where there isn’t.

“He just surprises you with his fundamentals,” former coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Boston last year, in his final months coaching Pierce. “You know, he’s so fundamentally sound, he actually looks un-athletic. And it’s a heck of a compliment to a player.”

His upper-body fakes have been among the best in the league - along with his ability to sell the foul — and keep the defenses at bay just long enough for Pierce to find the room to score. It’s no coincidence that since Pierce moved to the power forward, where he can run past and around slower and clumsier defenders, the Nets offense has taken a large step forward.

“I don’t think he’s ever been really the fastest guy,” Nets guard Deron Williams said. “He knows how to use angles, use his body, and he’s just a scorer. And it helps that he’s playing the four now, because he definitely has the speed advantage.”

But perhaps the biggest advantage Pierce gives the Nets is the mental one.

Before this season, the Nets hadn’t beaten the defending-champion Heat since before LeBron James arrived. But Pierce loves tormenting James, or anyone viewed as superior to him, and helped lead the Nets to four straight wins over Miami in this regular season.

“I haven’t ran into too many people that Paul has been afraid of,” said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, who played with Pierce at Kansas. “He has a way about him, and I’m sure he brings that to this team.”