Last season, Paul Pierce limped through training camp with a strained foot. This time, Pierce has avoided aches, pains, and setbacks in getting off to a strong start to the exhibition season.
Pierce scored 29 points — 20 in the opening half – but the Celtics faltered in the final minutes of a 97-96 loss to the Brooklyn Nets Tuesday night at the Garden.
“I’m trying to establish a rhythm,’’ Pierce said. “I was going to try to be aggressive, I was really disappointed I didn’t do it the last couple games.
“It’s a combination of being aggressive, learning my teammates, learning a new offense, also. And understanding where the shots are going to come from. When I’m aggressive out there, everybody else follows. It was pretty contagious.’’
In the second quarter, Pierce produced 10 points over a 1-minute-and-2-second span, then blocked an Andray Blatche shot. Pierce displayed his range in the opening half, with three 3-pointers, two left-handed drives, plus two of his trademark elbow jumpers, one a banker.
In the third quarter, Pierce was content to stay on the perimeter, nailing three more 3-pointers in a 2:04 span, going to the bench in the third quarter after playing 26:46 seconds. Pierce is averaging 15.8 points and 23-plus minutes per game.
Kevin Garnett had 8 points and two blocked shots in the opening six minutes of the second half, soon going to the bench for the remainder of the contest.
The Celtics led by 14 points late in the third quarter, then went deep into the bench and faltered in the final quarter. Coach Doc Rivers left the court in the second half, allowing assistant Armond Hill to coach the team in the final minutes.
“I think it’s good experience for our assistant coach, if [Rivers] ever gets kicked out of the game,” Pierce said. “Doc mentioned after the game they have to step up, just like the players. There might be times when I foul out, the other guys have to be ready.”
Point guard Rajon Rondo, who played 35:26, was also involved in coaching decisions, helping set up a last-second in-bounds play.
“We got what we were looking for,” Rondo said of a pass from Courtney Lee to Micah Downs, who appeared to be fouled under the basket. “I better not comment – I think you can get fined for saying certain things as a coach. It just didn’t come up.”
The Nets (3-0) went with reserves for the entire game.
The Celtics (1-4) have been struggling against Atlantic Division foes, losing to the New York Knicks (98-95 in overtime) and Philadelphia (107-75). They will meet division rivals in their final three exhibitions — at Brooklyn Thursday, against the Knicks in Albany, N.Y., Saturday, and the Sixers at home Sunday.
The Nets added several players, including former Celtic Joe Johnson, in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks, and will be playing at a new arena in Brooklyn.
“They’ve been really quiet,” Rivers joked of the Nets. “Obviously, they had to do a lot of game-planning because they had to have two game plans – with Dwight Howard playing and a secondary one, which is still a good plan. The new arena helped recruit players and keep players. Deron Williams probably wouldn’t be there.”
The Celtics waived guards Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith.
“Two good kids, both played hard,” Rivers said. “It really came down to numbers — just not enough room.”
Smith had been projected as a backup point guard and Rivers said the Celtics will continue to seek a player at that position.
“Maybe the Heat will cut LeBron [James],” Rivers joked. “We’re always looking. I think every team is always looking. If nothing comes, does that bother us? No. I think it would be great to get another guy, at any position.
“Obviously, at that one [point guard], it would help. But we can’t forget Avery [Bradley] is coming back, so we can’t overdo that.”
The Celtics will continue to fill the position with Courtney Lee and Jason Terry .
“Every team doesn’t have two great point guards, most teams don’t,” Rivers said. “All three [Bradley, Lee, and Terry] are ballhandlers. None of the three are pure point guards but they certainly can play together.”
Bradley (shoulder surgeries) is scheduled to return in mid-December.
Lee was averaging 8.3 points per game in the preseason.
“It’s always difficult for new guys coming in,” Rivers said of Lee. “And it’s not the system – it’s playing with Kevinand Pauland Rondo and they’re trying to figure out when should I shoot, is this a good shot for me? It just takes time.”
Milicic held out
Darko Milicic (hand) missed the game and will be held out of Thursday’s visit to Brooklyn, Rivers said. Milicic is scheduled to return against the Knicks in Albany Saturday.
“We’ve just got to make sure,’’ said Rivers. “I just know with those things you keep falling on it or somebody hits it and it never heals.”
Not at full strength
Chris Wilcox (back) does not plan to return until he has returned to full strength.
“Until my strength and conditioning are where they need to be, I’m not going to get back out there,” said Wilcox, who has yet to play during the preseason.
Wilcox, who underwent heart surgery March 29, has not been diagnosed since an MRI this month.
“I had an MRI after we got back from [Europe],” Wilcox said. “I’ve been through lot of stuff, radiation and stuff, so I can’t keep doing that.’’
Rivers on the nine-day break between the final exhibition game against Philadelphia Oct. 21 and the regular-season opener at Miami Oct. 30:
“If we lose bad on opening night it’s an awful thing. I think there’s not enough preparation time, especially going to Europe, camp being interrupted. We can make a case we can have another training camp a real one where we don’t travel and we get to practice. I’ve always liked having a week [before the start of the regular season], and we’re going to do that this year.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.