ORLANDO — The eclipsing of Larry Bird on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list overshadowed a troubled beginning to the season for Paul Pierce. He has been inundated with congratulations and well wishes for his scoring accomplishment yet just six short weeks ago he was playing on one leg, despite giving the impression he was healthy.
This has not been the normal road to the NBA’s midseason celebration for Pierce. It appeared after a ragged start that he had no chance to become an All-Star for the 10th time, and when he was selected but Big Three mates Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett weren’t, it was a sign that the league is moving forward. Players drafted in the 1990s are considered in decline.
“[All-Star appearances] are all pretty special,’’ he said. “The first time you make it, you’re excited that you’ve arrived as an NBA player and that motivates you to keep going. To make it here my 14th year is a feat. I’m constantly motivated to want to be one of the best players in the league.’’
Pierce is part of that 1990s NBA generation, but because of his scoring prowess that has been refined with time, he is the most marketable of the Big Three if Celtics president Danny Ainge decides to disassemble the core.
Yet while Ainge must decide on the Celtics’ transition to the next era, Pierce is consumed with making the best of a difficult season.
“I think we have been hurt by the lack of practice time, no training camp, and that had a bigger effect on us than we thought,’’ Pierce said. “But we’ve got four All-Star players on this team and I think we are fully capable of making a run. We only got 30 something games left so it’s going to have to be pretty fast but I think we can do it.’’
Pierce holds himself responsible for the Celtics’ early woes because he wasn’t able to play or practice. He suffered a bruised right heel that cost him training camp and the first three games of the season.
Without him the Celtics were unable to close games down the stretch, losing to New York, Miami, and inexplicably New Orleans. Yet all wasn’t well when Pierce returned. He was less than 100 percent because of the heel, which hurt every step he ran the floor. And he was hardly in basketball shape.
A player who has taken pride in his physical conditioning since workout addicts Allen and Garnett joined the team, Pierce was in perhaps the worst shape of his career. He was hesitant to drive the basketball because he couldn’t beat opposing defenders off the dribble.
“That was one of the hardest things that I had to do,’’ he said about getting into shape during the season. “I am usually ready for the season. The heel injury really set me back. I couldn’t even get on the court and I spent like three weeks not even able to do that. It was hard on my body. It was definitely an uphill climb for me.’’
His customary jumper continuously fell short because he had no lift. He lacked explosion on his drives, and officials weren’t bailing him out with foul calls. It was a miserable stretch for Pierce, one in which critics began questioning his effectiveness at age 34. Celtics coach Doc Rivers pleaded with those observers to exhibit patience until Pierce worked himself back into condition.
Pierce eventually did, but instead of using practices to increase his endurance, he had to use games to work himself into shape — hardly the optimal way to improve.
“It was really nothing we could do about,’’ Rivers said. “Paul had to get himself into shape and we didn’t have any practices. I kept telling people, just wait until he gets into shape. Those shots will start falling, he will get to the free throw line and he will become Paul again. And it happened.’’
Still, the Celtics are 15-17, and Pierce said he is somewhat embarrassed by that mark. Opposing teams no longer fear the Celtics, and the Big Three along with Rajon Rondo have dealt with injuries and inconsistency throughout the first half of the season. While as many as 40 media members surrounded the tables of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade, Pierce and Rondo didn’t attract much attention.
The Celtics are an afterthought here in Orlando, but Pierce said he believes that perception will change.
“It does hurt when it’s the little things that are really killing us,’’ he said. “Like I said before, I’m attributing that to a lack of practice time, but also it’s about discipline and understanding what we’re trying to do.
“When we come out of timeouts, we need to have guys understand what Doc is telling us and go out and execute. And that’s the most frustrating part, so hopefully we have a better focus going into the next half of the season to where we’re concentrating on all the little things to where we don’t have execution mishaps after timeouts.’’
Pierce said he is partly responsible for the struggles. He shot 49.7 percent from the field last season, and that has dropped to 41.7 this season. He has fallen short on potential game-winning shots down the stretch and on two occasions he has made miscues on last-second plays,
Pierce is disappointed. He knows he and the team are capable of better and there are 34 games left to prove it. Luckily for the Celtics, the 76ers have cooled off considerably and lead Boston by just four games. There is plenty of opportunity to make what could be the last season with the Big Three memorable.
“I think if we get to top health, I think we’ll be one of the best teams in the East,’’ said Pierce. “A team that nobody’s going to want to play in the playoffs. We just need to get our guys back.’’
So when asked about eclipsing Bird (21,791 points) and approaching Celtics all-time leading scorer John Havlicek (26,395), Pierce has little to say. His concentration is not on personal accomplishments. He is the captain of what some perceive as a sinking ship. His legacy will be further enhanced by championships, he said, not scoring accolades.
“I never really thought about a lot of individual honors, especially late in my career,’’ he said. “The things that have happened are due to longevity, being consistent, I think being healthy.
“I think a lot of these things happen so fast during the course of the season, a lot of stuff doesn’t sink in until over the summer time. That’s when I’ll think about that.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.