There is a certain rhythm to the Celtics pregame routine that is rarely ever interrupted. For the 40 or so minutes before the game when the locker room is open to the press certain mores are understood and respected.
Kevin Garnett, for example, does not talk before games. Ever. Ray Allen often does, and in keeping with Allen’s meticulous nature it is almost always at around 6:30 p.m. Each player has their own custom and tradition and it doesn’t take visitors long to figure out the patterns.
In the case of Paul Pierce, he will make himself available if there is some pressing issue to address, but more often than not he saves his comments for the post-game.
So, it was noteworthy when Pierce strolled over to his locker and sat down an hour and half before tipoff of Wednesday’s night game against the Bobcats. That was a signal that Pierce was ready to hold court.
He was asked if it’s been tough for him to get into a rhythm with all of his injuries, which have included two in-season surgical procedures on his knee and a subsequent infection, a severely sprained foot that was briefly thought to be broken and a thumb injury that cost him three games and clearly affected his play on their west coast swing.
“It’s a little difficult,” he said. “You get into a good, comfortable groove and then you sit out a few weeks or a couple weeks. It’s like going to the race and then stopping and starting, starting and stopping. How do you expect to win if you do that? You get into a comfortable place, especially in a long distance race.”
He continued: “I feel pretty good right now, to tell you the truth. It’s the best I’ve felt in a few weeks and I expect myself to get out there and get into a good groove pretty soon. My body feels great and I’m ready.”
Pierce backed up his self-diagnosis by going out and scoring 27 points in 27 minutes against Charlotte and holding Gerald Wallace to just eight points and four rebounds.
It was Pierce’s best offensive game since he scored 35 against the Hawks on Jan. 29. That was 14 games ago and the Celtics went 8-6 during that stretch before their 105-80 win Wednesday.
If they are going to compete for a championship the Celtics not only need to have a healthy Garnett and a rejuvenated Allen, they also need Pierce to be Pierce. There is simply no one else on the roster capable of creating their own offense the way Pierce can.
“We ran [isolation] stuff for him, which we haven’t done a lot,” Doc Rivers said. “And he came up pretty big for us. I thought it was good to get his rhythm.”
Pierce also mixed it up with Charlotte’s Stephen Jackson midway through the third quarter and they were assessed double technical fouls. Asked about it after the game, Pierce brushed it aside.
“You know Stephen, he is just a fiery guy,” Pierce said. “That is just how he is. He’s a competitor. I love watching him play. It was just both our competitiveness coming out. Nothing more than that.”
Jackson had a drastically different view.
“Certain things were said,” Jackson said. “Quotes by certain people and there’s no need for me to drop names. They know what was said. Me, personally, I can take getting beat, if it’s about basketball. But when it gets to the point where you’re being personal and being disrespectful as a man to another man, that’s when I have a problem. The person I’m talking about, he knows it because I said what I had to say about him.”
Of more pressing concern for Pierce and the Celtics is their home record, which now stands at 17-11. Of the other teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the Celtics have the second-worst home record ahead of only the Miami Heat.
“We’ve got to do a better job of starting something at home,” Pierce said before the game. “It was crazy, I was looking at the standings last night and I think we’re like the best road team in basketball or tied for it [Cleveland now has the best road record by a half game]. And I was like man, if we took care of business, we’d probably be the best team in the NBA record-wise. It’s crazy to me when I look at it like that. So we’ve definitely got to do a better job of winning at home regardless of it’s a blowout or just winning ball games.”
Pierce is the captain, of course, which means different things to different people. While we don’t have access to what is said behind closed doors, and the Celtics are known for being brutally honest with each other, Pierce’s leadership style seems to be more by example than rah-rah. He is not one for giving emotional speeches to the media, for example.
Pierce’s leadership manifests itself in his willingness, some would say stubbornness, to play through all of his injuries. And it is clearly evident at the end of games when he is often called upon to either take the winning shot or create the play that leads to it.
But Pierce can also be blunt about the state of the team and this was also obvious when he was asked about recent comments, most notably by Kendrick Perkins, that the team was “bored,” with the regular season.
“You don’t see teams just turn it once when the playoff starts so the process is very important,” Pierce said. “Just like when you go to a boxing match. You don’t just step out there during the match and fight. You have to build up, you have to have practices, you have to spar, and that’s what the regular season is. You have to get ready.”
Pressed further, Pierce added:
“Like I said, I don’t have that mindset. If some players feel that way, then I think that’s shame on them. This is what the regular season’s about. It’s building for the playoffs. We haven’t been a team that’s proved that we can coast during the season then turn it up in the playoffs. So there’s no excuses.”
Pierce’s words rang out in a locker room that has offered more than its share of rationalizing and, yes, excuses over the last few months. Of course it would mean nothing if he didn’t back it up on the court, as well.
On this night Pierce lived up to his moniker, The Truth, in many more ways than one.