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Pierce Is Just Not Feeling It

Despite Winning, Celtics Forward Trying to Adjust

By Greg Sandoval
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page E14

With nothing but Celtic green around him, all Paul Pierce can see these days is red. His latest meltdown came Wednesday night in a victory over the Atlanta Hawks, when his coach, Doc Rivers, removed the four-time all-star from the game just before the end of the first quarter. Pierce went to the bench cursing, stopping only to shout a complaint in Rivers's direction: "There's only seven seconds left."

Pierce does not have a reputation as an NBA brat. A diligent worker, for seven seasons he has maintained the club's flannel-shirt-and-hard-hat image. Pierce defied death after a near-fatal stabbing in 2000 and buoyed the once-dominant franchise through some of its leanest years. His nickname, given to him by friend Shaquille O'Neal, is "The Truth." Both his character and play have won accolades from the Celtics' godfather himself, Red Auerbach.

The Celtics are 6-1 since reacquiring Antoine Walker on Feb. 24, but Paul Pierce, above, is still trying to get comfortable in Boston's new offense. (Charles Krupa -- AP)

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"He's one of my favorite kids," said Auerbach, the former Boston coach and general manager who helped develop Hall of Famers Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird. "Pierce is a typical Celtics kid. All he wants to do is win."

Pierce should be rejoicing these days. He was reunited with Antoine Walker, his teammate for five seasons, when the Celtics -- who host the Washington Wizards today -- reacquired him in a trade on Feb. 24. Veteran point guard Gary Payton, who was shipped to the Atlanta Hawks as part of the Walker deal, was later waived by the Hawks and is back in the Celtics' lineup.

Pierce and Walker drove the Celtics to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals and were the league's No. 2 scoring tandem behind then-Los Angeles Lakers teammates O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. After Walker was traded in 2003, opposing defenses could gang up on the 6-foot-6 Pierce.

"Antoine is another guy that defenses need help guarding," said Rivers, who is in his first season coaching Boston. "With Walker in there, it opens up the court and makes it easier for Paul to score."

Before Walker returned, Boston was the NBA's seventh-highest scoring team. Since the trade, it has risen to No. 5, gone 6-1 and is atop the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division with a 33-29 record.

Pierce, who is averaging 21.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, has seen his shooting accuracy rise to its highest level (44.9 percent) in four years. On Friday, he scored a season-high 38 points in the Celtics' 115-112 double-overtime win over Detroit.

So why is he still angry? Adjusting to Rivers's new system -- one that focuses less on his one-on-one scoring prowess and more on team play -- has not been easy.

"There were times when he didn't do well, and I had to get on him," said Rivers, referring to Pierce's habit of sometimes ignoring the offense and trying to break down a defense by himself. "That got him upset, but he kept trying to do what we asked him to do and he has it now. You've got to give Paul all the credit because it would have been very easy to fight that and say, 'What I've done in the past has worked.' "

The roots of Pierce's anger can be traced to his seven mostly frustrating seasons in Boston. When he first arrived, Pierce quietly endured a boot-camp atmosphere and three losing years under coach Rick Pitino.

He grew to love Pitino's replacement, Jim O'Brien, the defensive guru who led the club to the conference finals. But O'Brien disagreed with the direction the team was going under Danny Ainge, the Celtics' director of basketball operations, and quit during the 2003-04 season. O'Brien is now coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, a Celtics rival.

By the time O'Brien bolted, Ainge had already traded Walker. Pierce, 27, found himself without a marquee sidekick and being guided by an interim coach, John Carroll. The Celtics finished with a 36-46 record and sneaked into the playoffs, where they were swept in the first round by the Indiana Pacers.

After 2002, Pierce had expected more runs at the conference finals. Instead, he grew disenchanted.

"It's all part of the business, man, when you go through new coaches, new players," Pierce said last month. "It's definitely humbling, you know, when you've got a guy that's been around for a few years and is not with you, or a coach steps down. Having success one year, not having success the next year, it's definitely a humbling experience."

But even at his worst moments, Pierce has stopped short of wanting to leave Boston.

"I think I was more frustrated than anything with all the changes, with what happened last year," said Pierce. "A lot of times I spoke out of frustration, but I'll always want to be a Celtic."

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