EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ever the optimist, yet understanding that this experiment has a oncoming expiration date, Paul Pierce said Monday he is convinced the Brooklyn Nets can compete for an NBA championship and is pushing himself to return as soon as his right hand can withstand the pounding.
Pierce, the former Celtic, has been out since Nov. 29 with a fractured bone in his right hand. Pierce was expected to miss two weeks to a month, but he could return Tuesday night when the Nets host the Celtics in what would be Pierce’s first regular-season meeting against his former team.
He tried to downplay possibly facing the only team he had even known for 15 years, more interested in pulling his current team up from what has been a disastrous, injury-filled 6-14 start that already has seen four starters miss time with ailments and coach Jason Kidd demote his top assistant.
Pierce is averaging just 12.4 points per game, 6.2 fewer than in his final season with the Celtics, and he is shooting 36.8 percent from the field in 15 games. It’s been a disappointing beginning to his new career in Brooklyn, but Pierce said nothing can be determined through 20 games — at least he hopes not.
“I’ve had my ups and downs, but it’s not about me, it’s about getting this team healthy right now, trying to see if we can reach our potential,” he said. “Our goal before the season was to try to win a championship, but we haven’t gotten off to the best start and I probably haven’t been playing the best basketball due to probably some minor injuries I’ve been dealing with. I feel like as we continue to get healthy and guys come back and we develop more chemistry, we’re going to be there toward the end.”
There is a big difference between winning an NBA title and being there toward the end, and Pierce and the Nets have been humbled by this beginning. General manager Billy King made the blockbuster trade with the Celtics, acquiring Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry for several players, three first-round picks, and the right to swap picks in 2017. It was expected that the Nets immediately would compete with the likes of the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat.
But with injuries, Kidd’s inexperience, and a lack of chemistry, the Nets have lost eight games by double-digits and lost consecutive games by a combined 54 points before Saturday’s win at Milwaukee.
Pierce said he began shooting a few days ago and that whether he plays Tuesday night depends on how his right hand fares during shootaround. He said his return has nothing to do with facing the Celtics and then Doc Rivers’s Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday.
“I think emotions are already behind me,” said Pierce, second on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list. “We played them in the preseason. We had our press conference. Emotions are all behind. I probably won’t have any more emotions until I go back into the arena that I played in, but I’ve moved on, they’ve moved on, Doc’s moved on, Ray [Allen’s] moved on.
“I’ve just been anxious to get out there. It’s tough for me to sit down, especially when your team needs you. I don’t think it’s any more incentive because of the Celtics.”
Pierce won’t return to TD Garden until Jan 26. He held a basketball camp in Boston shortly after the trade where parents and kids were giving him hugs goodbye throughout the week. It may speed up the moving-on process that the Celtics have a new coach, new staff, and retooled roster. Pierce said he still speaks with Rajon Rondo, but it’s been a while since they talked.
“I’ve already been past that part a long time ago,” he said. “I’m a person that’s always when it’s time to move on, you move on. You can ask any girlfriend I’ve ever had. That’s just the way it is. It’s no hard feelings. I’m here. This is where I’m at now. You’ve got to move on. You can’t mourn or put your head down, this is what it is.”
The Celtics enter Tuesday night in first place in the Atlantic Division with a 10-12 record, having emerged as one of the more surprising teams in the NBA under new coach Brad Stevens. Pierce has noticed.
“They’re really surprising a lot of people,” he said. “Guys are stepping up. They’ve played good team ball, they’re running, they’re playing together despite Rondo being out. Nobody expected them to play good right now, especially without their leader. They’re probably going to be a better team once Rondo comes back and try to make a playoff push and that’s something a lot of people didn’t expect.”
Pierce’s focus is no longer in Boston. The Nets are trying to get it together quickly before King potentially changes the roster again in preparation for the future. There remains time, because the Eastern Conference has been so putrid, but Pierce said there is a sense of urgency.
“I think we have the potential of a championship team, the talent of a championship team,” he said. “It’s about putting it all together, getting healthy, and then seeing what we got.
“We’ve seen flashes of it at times but it’s tough when you don’t know who’s going to be in the lineup one night and who’s going to be out, but injuries do happen to every team and it’s something we’ve got to deal with. But I’d like to see us when we get fully healthy and see what our potential could possibly be.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.