- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- And then there was none?
When Ray Allen took his talents to South Beach, the Big Four morphed into a new, revised version of the Big Three. But then Rajon Rondo blew out his knee, and Kevin Garnett suffered a mysterious foot/ankle ailment, and the only one left standing was Paul Pierce.
Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, Pierce retreated to the bench with a "tweaked" ankle and sat out the fourth quarter of an odious 108-89 thrashing at the hands of the New York Knicks, a possible first-round playoff opponent that has clubbed the Celtics twice within a week.
Had the outcome of the game not been decided by halftime (that's what happens when you give up 65 points in two quarters and allow a team to shoot 11-of-16, or 68.8 percent, from the 3-point line), the captain likely would have gamely played out yet another Celtics loss minus KG, the epicenter of their defensive identity. Garnett made the trip to New York with the team, although he did not participate in the shootaround or appear on the team bench, either in uniform or in street clothes.
Doc Rivers informed me last night that I should stop worrying about KG.
"Honestly, he's fine," Rivers said. "It's a bone something, a bone spur that just needs to relax and calm down. I think that's what it is. It's his ankle. If we were in the playoffs tonight, Kevin would absolutely be playing."
Of course, by the time KG returns, he'd better hope Paul Pierce isn't too exhausted to welcome him back.
It's not so much the minutes he's logged in the days since KG was sidelined (about 34 a night), it's how much this team is asking him to do. Pierce has always been a primary scorer, but now he's been asked to serve as the key facilitator, a top rebounder and a consistent ball handler. And that's before we've even discussed his defensive assignments. His plate, his coach concedes, is very full.
By halftime on Sunday, Pierce already had logged 21 minutes, which was more than any other player on the Knicks or Celtics. At the break, he already had scored 15 points, grabbed a team-high eight boards and dished out a team-high five assists. He also shot a team-high six free throws.
And his team trailed by 17.
When Pierce finally called it a night after 32 minutes, he checked out with 24 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and a game-high five assists.
The frustration was apparent in his assessment of the game, which included an indictment of his team's defensive performance, his observation that the rival Knicks "beat us to the punch all night," and the fact New York "pretty much did anything they wanted."
There was discussion in the Celtics' locker room in advance of this drubbing that it was important for Boston to submit a decent showing in light of last Tuesday's dismal 100-85 defeat on the TD Garden parquet. A rallying cry, of sorts.
Instead, it was another humiliating loss against a team that is about to steal the Celtics' Atlantic Division title from them. The Knicks are 20 games above .500 and are light-years ahead of a Celtics team sans Garnett.
"It's very disappointing," Pierce said. "I definitely didn't expect a showing like this coming into Madison Square Garden, especially with the way they did us in in our home building, especially being a team we may face in the playoffs. If this is a team we face in the playoffs, they're going to have tremendous confidence against us.
"So who knows? We've got to do something about it. If they face us in the playoffs, they're going to feel like they have our number. We did this to ourselves."
Sometimes mental fatigue can be just as debilitating as the physical toll of a long season. Rivers said he plans to sit Pierce "very soon" and indicated it likely will happen Monday in Minnesota.
"Paul's minutes have been OK," Rivers explained, "but his weight load is still heavy. I just don't want to wear him down. Obviously I know what we are risking by not playing him and Kevin right now, but at the end of the day, it would be a waste of time to wear them out, then play them in the playoffs. That makes no sense."
Rivers said he's not concerned that Pierce is becoming discouraged by the mounting losses. "He knows that when we have Kevin, we can beat anybody," the coach declared.
In the meantime, it is Pierce's load to bear to hold up what's left of his depleted basketball team. He acknowledged as much on Sunday night, lamenting the ever-changing lineups, but adding, "We've just got to get through it."
Pierce has been here before. During the dog days of 2006-07, when his team lost 18 consecutive games, he made the now famous declaration that he was a "classic great player on a bad team, and it stinks."
He wasn't far off the mark. Here's the thing about Pierce: Through the dark moments of 2007 and the subsequent championship memories from 2008, Pierce's numbers were the same. In fact, going on 15 seasons now, he's averaged 18 points a game (or more) every year.
"You realize that only five guys in the history of the game have done that, right?" Rivers said. "Look up the guys that have done it, and I guarantee you will say, 'Wow.'"
As usual, Doc is right. Upon further examination, Pierce is indeed among elite company. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other players who have averaged 18 points a game or more for as many consecutive seasons as Pierce are Karl Malone (17 straight seasons), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (16), Kobe Bryant (15), Hakeem Olajuwon (14) and Shaquille O'Neal (14).
The captain knows he has no choice. He might get a respite in Minnesota, but then he will need to lace up again for the stretch run. He's hoping KG will join him, but if he doesn't, well, that's how it goes.
"I can't sit down and cry about it," Pierce said. "I've got to go out and play."
7hMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo
4dIan O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer