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Saturday, March 9, 2013
Taking one for the team (as usual)

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Remember the plan?

With Paul Pierce approaching the twilight of his career -- although the Celtics brass was savvy enough to not utter the infamous words that earned former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette a decade of derision for his description of Roger Clemens -- the Celtics publicly laid the groundwork in advance of the 2012-13 season that perhaps it was time for Pierce to come off the bench, to diminish his burden as the primary scorer, to cut down his minutes so his 35-year-old body would be fresh for the postseason.

Both Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers suggested this course of action. Pierce merely shrugged and agreed to do what was asked of him, even though he believed he was capable of successfully holding down his starting job.

Rivers When [Rajon] Rondo comes back, Paul [Pierce] and Kevin [Garnett] need to continue to lead the way they are now. Because, honestly, I don't buy into the 'Whose team is it?' I think that's the silliest damn stuff. I don't care whose team it is. Just go play together.

-- Celtics coach Doc Rivers

"You know coaches," said Pierce, laughing heartily. "Sometimes they ramble."

That plan was hatched before Rajon Rondo was lost for the year with a torn ACL and Jared Sullinger followed with season-ending back surgery.

The Celtics arrive in Oklahoma City for a nationally televised tilt Sunday with a five-game winning streak in tow and Pierce assuming a role that's more expansive than ever.

He is still asked to hit the game winner (see Utah on Feb. 25), but he has also assumed the role of master facilitator. Look no further than Friday's overtime win versus Atlanta, when Pierce dropped a team-high 27 on the Hawks (on 10-of-16 shooting) and kept his team alive with clutch baskets in regulation. He also penetrated, drew enough attention to host a small dinner party and kicked the ball out to Jeff Green for a hideous one-bounce, "did-that-go-in?" 3 in overtime. Pierce did the same for Jason Terry so he could get a clean look at a monster 3 in OT.

Since Rondo went down, Pierce is averaging 40 percent more assists per minute than at any other time of his career, according to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton. Pierce's rebounding production has also spiked significantly. When this season began, he had submitted seven triple-doubles in his career, yet none since 2010.

Pierce has since conjured up two triple-doubles within a month: a Jan. 27 gem (17 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) against Miami in a double-overtime win and Feb. 10 against Denver (27 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists).

"Honestly, I don't understand why Paul hasn't gotten more credit," said Green. "This is a stage of his career where he's supposed to be pulling back, and instead he's leading us in just about every way."

Paul Pierce
Since Rajon Rondo went down, Paul Pierce is averaging 40 percent more assists per minute than he's ever handed out in his career.

Pierce's season began with one of the most woeful shooting slumps of his prolific career. At times, he looked anchored to the parquet, with no lift and a shot that was flat and lifeless. He shot 39.9 percent from the floor in January, including 28.9 percent from the 3-point line.

He preached patience and promised his numbers would improve.

"I wasn't worried," Pierce said. "I felt fine. The shots just weren't going."

After Rondo's devastating injury, Pierce and Kevin Garnett gathered the team in the locker room and challenged them to do more.

"It could have gone two ways," said Pierce in an interview Friday night. "We could have sulked, got down on ourselves and the team, or we could do what we're doing, which is rally together and use this as an opportunity to step up and prove everybody wrong."

Pierce acknowledged that when local and national pundits declared the Celtics' season doomed, it became a rallying cry in the locker room, with Garnett generating the most noise.

"We heard a lot of stuff after Rondo and Sully went down," Pierce said. "A lot of the guys in here didn't like it. They have too much pride.

"You couldn't help but hear it. All the time. I don't watch a lot of TV, because I don't have time with my kids and all, but it was impossible not to know what was being said. It was all around."

Boston is 14-4 since Rondo's injury, and the debate rages on whether the Celtics could possibly be better without their All-Star point guard.

"We're different," Pierce said. "We're more opportunistic. If you go back to last year, we were struggling with Rondo before the All-Star break. But then we got it together, and we were one game away from the Finals -- with Rondo."

The superb ball movement and renewed defensive commitment since Rondo went down suggests the point guard will need to make some adjustments to his game when he returns next season.

"I don't know what adjustments will be made," Pierce conceded. "I don't know if it will be a change in the coaching philosophy, the offensive style. Who knows? Who knows who is even going to be on this team next year?"

Pierce I think anything is possible. ... Ask around. I don't think anyone is going to want to play us [in the playoffs].

-- Paul Pierce

Rondo has been in Florida rehabbing his injury under the watchful eye of Dr. James Andrews. He is expected to rejoin the team as a spectator in the next couple of weeks and will undoubtedly engage in some conversations with his coach.

"I think Rondo's smart enough to understand we need him," Rivers said, "and he's smart enough to understand there's a better way to play with him.

"The other part of that, 'Are we better with or without Rondo?' I don't give that any thought because I don't care. I just know what we are now. That's all I need to focus on. I do think Kevin and Paul have reasserted their voice, and that's healthy for us."

The need to declare that the Celtics were Rondo's team was a curious phenomenon from the start. It was hard to imagine that future Hall of Famers Pierce and Garnett ever completely bought into that, although they were happy to play along for public consumption.

"I don't know if they did or not," said Rivers, "but all I know is those two guys are talking more. When Rondo comes back, Paul and Kevin need to continue to lead the way they are now. Because, honestly, I don't buy into the 'Whose team is it?' I think that's the silliest damn stuff. I don't care whose team it is. Just go play together."

Rivers said in all his years of coaching, he has resisted naming a team captain. He only did it once in his career, his third season in Orlando.

"I came out and said, 'Tracy McGrady is our captain,' and it was the worst mistake I made," Rivers said. "The team will tell you who their captain is.

"I never named a captain here. When Ray and Kevin were traded here, I never said to them, 'You guys are my captains.' But when it was time to meet with the referees in the circle before the game, all three of them were there. So they were the captains."

Rivers said Pierce's ability to hit shots -- he long ago coined him a "professional scorer" -- has, at times, evolved into his team standing and watching while The Truth tries to win the game with a one-on-one move.

That strategy flies in the face of what has worked for this rejuvenated Celtics team, which is exceptional ball movement.

Paul Pierce
After Rajon Rondo's injury, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett gathered their teammates in the locker room and challenged them to do more.

"But he's just so good in those situations," Rivers said. "Especially at the end of games. If you want a final shot, you have to go to the late iso for him, because right now he's the only guy who can create his own shot. Jeff can some, but not like Paul.

"At the end of the Indiana game, the kid [Paul George] was so good defensively. I didn't want to go iso with Paul because I was afraid the kid would strip him. So we went with something else."

The "something else" was a clever play using Pierce as a decoy to set a screen and free Green under the basket for a game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds left.

"To be honest, I've actually regretted some plays that haven't worked, where I've tried to run something [without Pierce]," Rivers said. "It doesn't go, and Paul's sitting there. And he never says anything, but I end up thinking, 'I should have run it for him.' Because he's a shot-maker. Always has been. He's also proven to be an incredibly unselfish player down the stretch for us."

Pierce was subjected to incessant rumors before the trade deadline, including a recently reported three-way deal that would have brought Josh Smith to Boston and sent Pierce to Dallas. That proposed trade, according to league and Atlanta team sources, was not close to happening, because Boston had no interest in dealing Pierce and a first-round pick for Smith.

"I wish this year I could have opened up our talks to everyone so people could see what was really said," Rivers said. "It was 50-to-1 in terms of the talk you heard and what we were actually doing.

"It was so far off. You don't say anything, because you can't, but this year in particular was just out of control. There were days I was working out and I'd have the TV on and there was a trade being talked about, and I'd say, 'Wow, I never heard that.' And it was my team."

Rivers said he understands that rumors are going to be passed around about his team, though.

"It bothers me. It's nuts. But that's the way it's going to be," he said. "There are people out there texting and blogging who have no face. I truly believe to this day the whole Carmelo and Kevin thing was started by a blogger.

"Go back and look. Carmelo never said Kevin said what was reported [a derogatory comment regarding Anthony's wife]. Ever. You never, to this day, heard Carmelo say that's what happened. Did any other player say that's what happened? No. It was some blogger."

Pierce has been on the trade block before. The Celtics were so intent on trying to trade him for the rights to Chris Paul before the 2005 draft they actually drafted two ads to appear in the Boston Globe the following morning: one touting the future of the team with a new young draft pick and one status quo ad with Pierce's likeness.

Pierce's contract allows for the Celtics to buy him out for $5 million this summer, which would make him a free agent. Pierce said he expects Ainge will sit him down and review his options when the season ends, but he is resigned to the fact that anything could happen.

"I've had a great run here," Pierce said. "I wouldn't give any negative backlash to what they feel they need to do to help their franchise. I still feel I have a couple of good years to play. If it's for someone else, then so be it."

Rivers acknowledges that Pierce and KG are a package deal; if one goes, the other will likely want to move along.

While Rivers lauded Pierce's passing, rebounding and shooting, it's his new persona as an authoritative voice among this teammates that has caught his coach's eye.

"His overall leadership is what's impressed me most," Rivers said. "He's been very vocal. I just think he's brought a really good spirit to this team."

Asked to cite specific examples, Rivers said Pierce has become more proactive in the huddle, whether it's exhorting guys to play harder or suggesting a play.

"He speaks up now, which is different," Rivers said. "And what's really great is if he speaks up and I say, 'No, we're not doing that,' he moves on. He's gone. He's on to the next thing. And that's a great thing for the other guys to see."

Oklahoma City represents yet another contending playoff team with superior athleticism. The Celtics' recent success has left them in a tie with Atlanta for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, yet few are prepared to coin them championship material.

"Anything is possible," said Pierce. "We match up really well with Miami, and we've beaten Indiana twice. We match up well with New York, Brooklyn. So you're talking about the top-four teams in the East right there.

"Ask around. I don't think anyone is going to want to play us."

The new plan is cemented in place, with Pierce where he's always been: front and center, ready to take his best shot.