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The Boston Globe

Sports

Dan Shaughnessy

Paul Pierce may be one of Celtics’ greatest now

Paul Pierce led the Celtics to a win in Game 2 in Atlanta.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Paul Pierce led the Celtics to a win in Game 2 in Atlanta.

Is it time to put Paul Pierce in the starting five for the all-time Celtics team?

I’m starting to think so. And my man, Bob Cousy, sounds almost ready to elevate Pierce to the Hub’s Fab Five.

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“I certainly think he’s a viable candidate now for that position,’’ the 83-year-old Cooz said Wednesday before leaving his house for a round of 18.

Many of you perhaps already have Paul in your Parquet Pantheon. Not me. I’m a holdout. But Pierce’s one-man demolition of the Hawks Tuesday night reminds me that I’m one of the many who have never appreciated Pierce’s true greatness. We all know that Pierce has never gotten his due from the national media - not even when he was MVP of the NBA Finals in a series (2008) that included Kobe Bryant.

Look up the Celtics’ career stat leaders, and it is clear Pierce belongs. He ranks third in games, third in minutes, second in points, and second in points per game.

But Boston’s best is unlike anyone else’s best (except Los Angeles, which we’ll get to).

There is only one spot open on my all-time Celtics team, because the first four are etched in the New Hampshire mountainside: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and Larry Bird.

Those are the top four Celtics in history. Some of you young folks might need a lesson on the Cooz’s greatness, but trust me when I tell you he was the first NBA Superstar and the man who saved Walter Brown’s fledgling franchise in the early days of the NBA. Among thinking men anywhere, Bob Cousy’s place in the Celtics’ all-time starting five is forever secure.

Same goes for Russell, Bird, and Havlicek. It’s obvious.

But the fifth starter . . . that’s where it gets tricky.

My No. 5 guy for the last 15 years has been Kevin McHale. McHale was the greatest low-post threat since Wilt Chamberlain. He was virtually unguardable. He shared the load with Bird and Robert Parish and served as a sixth man for the early part of his career.

I have always been comfortable with McHale alongside Russell, Cooz, Hondo, and Bird. One could also make a case for Sam Jones, Parish, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, or even Bill Sharman if you wanted to go way back in the day. And let’s not forget Tommy Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, and Dennis Johnson while we’re at it.

I asked Cooz to help me with the Pierce vs. McHale argument.

“Kevin’s tough to categorize,’’ said Cousy. “Doing his games [on television], I used to say, ‘This is the best inside threat I’ve ever seen.’ He had so many moves in that paint and he was so intelligent about how he played the game, he was impressive.

“I would have liked to have seen him block a few more shots, maybe be a little more aggressive on the boards. It’s not fair to say he could have been better.

“He was awfully good, but the fact that he was surrounded by Bird and Robert obviously made it a little easier on him. The defense couldn’t focus on him the way they’ve done to Pierce for most of his career. Paul’s never had a lot of people take the pressure off him until the Big Three.’’

Hmmmm. Good point. So maybe it should be Pierce alongside Russell, Bird, Havlicek, and Cousy.

The only team that could field a better All-Star roster would be the Lakers, who could come at you with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Kobe Bryant. Which two players do you want to bounce from that gang of seven? Yikes. And I thought the McHale-Pierce choice was tough.

Pierce probably belongs. Sure, he has had his moments of immaturity. He played on a lot of bad teams and has only one championship in his pocket. He plays an inelegant game. Some would call it uglyball. But he is the greatest scorer in Celtic history. He has emerged as a leader. And he might be the toughest non-hockey player in the history of our town.

“I’ve always been a little ambivalent, but I think in the last couple of years, he’s produced enough of these moments where you would have to consider him,’’ said Cousy. “Even this season, he’s the one who picked up his game to get them back to competitive when they stumbled early on.

“And at 34, that is not easy to do, especially in the playoffs. The intensity is so sustained. At 31, I was saying to myself, ‘I can’t be the man in the playoffs anymore,’ but I was surrounded by five Hall of Famers. So I could still do the creative bit and set up the opportunities for someone else to finish. But I realized that during the season it’s a cakewalk compared to what it’s like during the playoffs.

“For the most part, he earned his points. He’s always been a slasher and he takes more contact now, maybe, than he did when he was younger.

“The body starts to talk back to you at this point in your career: Enough already. Stand outside and take those threes. Don’t bring me into the paint where those big bodies live.’’

Like the rest of us, Cousy was impressed by Tuesday’s win in Atlanta.

“You have to take advantage of these opportunities,’’ said Mr. Basketball. “I thought the Celtics had a good shot. Atlanta is not the smartest team in the world. They’re young and athletic, but they still look like a pretty undisciplined group.

“To have handled the Celtics as easily as they did in the first game, I’m sure with [Rajon] Rondo out and Ray [Allen] not playing, they figured in that second game that all they had to do was show up. The other team still has to respond aggressively, and obviously the Celtics did that.’’

So, what about it, Cooz? Is it time to put Paul in there alongside yourself, Russ, Larry, and John?

“I don’t know,’’ he said. “I would vote at least to put him . . . I certainly think it’s a reasonable position. I don’t want to tick off a half-dozen other guys that should be in that same potential position, but I would certainly vote to put him in that spot and let history decide.’’

How does he like the Celtics’ chances?

“You can’t underestimate the heart of a champion,’’ he said. “On paper, I’m telling everybody they should be on the golf courses of the world, but in my heart of hearts, when you challenge the great ones, it’s amazing how they can reach back and surprise people.

“It would rival Russell’s ’69 adventure’’ - an NBA championship with a fourth-place team - “if they could do it.’’

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.
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