WALTHAM -- You ask Paul Pierce what he has learned from this season, and then you know how bad it truly was for the man who represents the future of the Boston Celtics.
"I've learned it can't get any worse than this," he said. "If I can live through this, I can live through anything."
When he went home to Los Angeles last summer to train for the 2003-04 season, he thought he was preparing for another run at the Eastern Conference finals, but a series of stunning moves obliterated that goal. Pierce saw the nucleus of his team -- Antoine Walker, Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Tony Delk -- get traded. He watched his coach, Jim O'Brien, resign. One of the key new players, Raef LaFrentz, underwent surgery and was lost for the season. Vin Baker, the troubled big man, was suspended by the team, then had his contract terminated.
Pierce was left amid the rubble, expected to rise from the ashes and save the franchise. That task was daunting and occasionally overwhelming. He had never been on a team that had lost 12 of 13. He was frustrated by the skirmishes within the organization. There was a dust-up between veteran Mark Blount and newcomer Ricky Davis. There were complaints about playing time. Reserve center Chris Mihm actually refused to go into a game. In the middle of a close game against the Lakers, Davis tried -- and missed -- a showboat dunk on a fast break. And those are only the incidents we know about.
"It has, at times, been a difficult group," said Pierce. "We have rookies who think they're veterans. We have veterans who think they're All-Stars. We've got guys who think they've got answers, but they've never been in a playoff game in their lives."
Carrying the team
That will change today, when the Celtics, the No. 8 seed in the East, play No. 1 seed Indiana in the first round of the playoffs in a best-of-seven series. Once a team rich in postseason experience, Boston will go to battle today with only three players remaining from the Celtics team that made it to the 2001-02 Eastern Conference finals: Pierce, Walter McCarty, and Blount. Recently acquired Chucky Atkins has playoff experience with previous clubs. Davis, Mihm, and Jiri Welsch have never made it to the "second season."
Just as they did in the regular season, the Celtics will look to Pierce to determine their fortunes. He has weathered the most difficult season of his life by submitting the good (23 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.1 assists a game), the bad (3.79 turnovers a game), and the ugly (40 percent from the floor). He logged 38.7 minutes a night and faced double- and triple-teams as his teammates tried to learn about each other on the fly.
"Paul has been stripped of a lot of his weapons," said coach John Carroll. "A lot of teams have said, `Just stop Paul Pierce and you'll beat them.' That put a lot of pressure on him. But you know what? He's handled it. He's handled it in a very classy way."
Leading on the court is second nature to Pierce. Leading in the locker room has been a work in progress. He has criticized his teammates, and been criticized by them. He is an emotional player who still has some growing to do.
"I say my piece some days, and some days I let it go," Pierce said. "I'm not a rah-rah type of guy. And with so many young guys, you can't come at all of them the same way. You can tear them down in a second and lose them if you're not careful."
He is not alone in his quest to carry a team. Three of the East's other biggest stars -- Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, and Vince Carter -- also excelled with teams who were below .500 for most of the season. The biggest difference between them and Pierce: They're home watching, and he's still playing.
"Paul has continued to battle through the frustration," said Danny Ainge, director of basketball operations. "And he showed up to play. Every day."
"It was very important to me [to make the playoffs]," Pierce said. "This is the Boston Celtics. You should always make the playoffs. This is one of the best franchises in the history of sports. You should never have a year like we just had. We should be like the Yankees, or the Lakers, a franchise always near the top.
"That's the only real disappointment I've had since I got here. We should be maintaining a level [of excellence], and we haven't."
Pierce points to former owner Paul Gaston's refusal to re-sign Rodney Rogers and Erick Strickland as the beginning of Boston's slide. Subsequent transactions, such as the ill-fated trade for Baker, and questionable draft selections hastened the team's demise. And, when Ainge took over and traded Walker, it was clear the team was in transition. Yet Pierce said he was stunned by how quickly the team was dismantled.
"I was a little confused," Pierce admitted. "I knew something was going to happen when they brought Danny in. Antoine and I talked about it. We thought they'd see how this year goes, and if we weren't doing well enough by the All-Star break, make a change then.
"So all this stuff that's happened, it's hit me a lot faster than expected."
Pierce said the surprise resignation in January of O'Brien, who was at odds with Ainge philosophically, was the most damaging blow.
"That probably hurt me the most," Pierce said. "I went into a real funk after that. I wouldn't talk to anybody. I felt like I lost my love of the game for a while. I kept saying, `What's going on? How did we get here?' Everything was just falling apart in front of my eyes."
The people he would normally have discussed his disillusionment with -- Williams, Walker, O'Brien -- were gone. Pierce considered asking out as well.
"It crossed my mind," Pierce said. "With everything happening, the trades, then the coach leaving, and Raef getting hurt, and the stuff with Vin, there was a point when I was thinking, `Am I next? Should I get out of here?'
"But after a week or two, I realized the reason I signed [an extension] was to get something done. My time here is not up yet."
Ainge has made it clear he views Pierce as the centerpiece of the rebuilding effort. But is the three-time All-Star willing to stick around to see it through?
"That's the big question," Pierce said. "I've got this window of opportunity. My contract has four years left, and something has got to happen. I've been here six years. I've been on some good teams, but I haven't been on one that started the season as a championship contender. That's what I'm looking for. "People ask me, `Are you going somewhere else to do it?' I know a lot of teams will make a push for me. People don't know if I'm happy here or not.
"I want to be someplace where I can win a championship. At the same time, I know it's special to be here when we're winning. I'd like to be here when things turn back around."
Ainge acknowledged he and Pierce have discussed the future, and the possibility that at some point Pierce might want a change.
"I'm sure a player of Paul's age  and desire can't help but have thoughts of `What are we doing?' " said Ainge. "But it's not always greener in other pastures. Paul is very appreciated here, by the fans, the owners, the coaches, the front office, the players.
"This is a very good situation for Paul. We're in the playoffs this year, and I expect us to be there next year, too. It's not like he's gone from a great team to nothing. We're not as good as last year. I recognize that. But I believe we'll be every bit as good, or better, by next year."
For that to happen, Pierce needs help. The best candidate is Davis, who has the talent but not the self-discipline yet to be a reliable second option.
"Ricky has so much energy built up inside him," Pierce said. "We play cards on the plane, and he can't even sit in his seat. He has to get up and walk around. He's a talent, but he's also a showman.
"He's one of those players you either love or you hate."
So where does Pierce stand with his teammate?
"I love him," he answered. "I love his energy and his potential. He just needs to mature some.
"This is a big summer for him. He needs somebody by his side telling him, `This is what's right, and this is what's wrong.' I'm going to try and be a big brother to him, the way Antoine was with me when I first came in.
"I think Ricky listens to me. I'm one of the few guys he listens to."
Pierce concedes that Davis has not been a model citizen when it comes to showing respect to his coaches. One of the things that set Blount off was Davis's habit of busting plays that have been called in from the sideline.
"I've talked to him about that," Pierce said. "I told him, `Hey, Ricky, that's the stuff that can lose you games in the playoffs.' Even though Ricky and I have been in the league the same amount of years, I don't think Ricky really understands the coaches.
"Sometimes, if the coaches don't run a play for him, he feels like it's a knock on his talent. That's not true. In many ways, he's still a young player."
Pierce has made his share of mistakes this season, too. One of the most glaring was his endorsement of former Celtic Dennis Johnson as a possible head coach next season, even as Carroll was toiling to get this year's club into the postseason.
"I didn't mean it that way," said Pierce. "I just like DJ. But I guess I'm in a position now where everything I say gets escalated -- especially when things aren't going right."
Pierce isn't about to make any guarantees regarding the series with Indiana. He knows Boston is a No. 8 seed for a reason. He does have some ideas about next season, and would like to share them with Ainge and owner Wyc Grousbeck.
"I want to be more involved," Pierce said. "If I'm going to be here, I want some input. When it comes to Danny, he's always looking at talent. He just wants to get the best guy, but as a player, I have a feel for the guy's game, and his personality, and whether he's a good fit for our team.
"A guy might be a helluva talent, but he might not mesh with what we're doing.
"I put a lot of stock in chemistry. Look at our team last year. We weren't that talented, but we had a lot of toughness. We had no business beating Indiana in the playoffs, but we did. The year before with Philly -- same thing. Once we believed in each other and developed chemistry, we were tough to beat."
And what of his 2004 playoff team? Does it have enough chemistry to put a scare into the heavily favored Pacers?
"It's a little too soon to say," Pierce said. "It's been inconsistent. That's what you get when you're young. Most of these guys don't know what it takes, night in and night out. We're telling these guys, `You've got to have a playoff mentality,' but most of them don't know what that means."
They'll find out today.