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Celtics are hurting with Pierce on mend

Paul Pierce joined his teammates yesterday afternoon for the flight to Orlando. He will have X-rays on his sore left hand today and, if all goes well, will be in uniform tonight against the Magic.

Pierce is coming off one of his more forgettable games as a Celtic, a 1-for-10, 4-point stink bomb Wednesday night against Houston. Afterward, he acknowledged the obvious, saying he was in discomfort because of two sore fingers and that he had been no factor in the 37 minutes he spent on the court.

That doesn't happen very often.

It might be a reach, but not a long one, to suggest that no player is more indispensable to his team than Pierce is to the Celtics. No, he's not an MVP candidate, mainly because the Celtics are slogging along at 20-21. But looking at the numbers, the durability, the presence, you'd be hard pressed to find a team that relies more on one individual.

Let's start with the obvious: He is the only player in the league who leads his team in scoring, rebounding, and assists. If he has an off night, like he did against Houston, or at Atlanta (4 of 16), or against New Orleans (4 of 16), the Celtics generally don't win.

In the Celtics' 20 victories, Pierce is averaging 26.4 points while shooting 45 percent from the field. He also collects an average of 8.1 rebounds in the Boston wins. In losses, he is averaging 20.3 points, but he is shooting only 37 percent. In general, he has better numbers on the road, which is not all that surprising given that the Celtics have a better road record (10-9) than home record (10-12.)

He leads all guards in rebounding and he is tied with Tracy McGrady in assists for shooting guards. He's the only player in the Eastern Conference to have been named Player of the Week more than once this season. (He got his second one for his play last week; the award came a few days after he was fined $7,500 for kicking a basketball into the stands at the end of the Orlando game.) Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves also has won the award twice this season.

OK, so he leads the loop in turnovers (and is second in turnovers per game) and sometimes the decisions are of the head-scratching variety. And, yes, his shot selection is, at times, questionable. He threw up a couple hold-your-nosers against the Rockets, including one transition trey with no teammate within 15 feet for a rebound. That's one reason he's shooting a career-low 41 percent from the field. (Another theory is he still doesn't trust his new teammates enough, but he should know by now that getting the ball to an open Jiri Welsch is a very good idea.) The turnovers are an outgrowth of his expanded and expansive on-the-court duties. You simply won't see very many possessions when he doesn't handle the ball.

And, lucky for them, he's around to handle the ball.

This latest hand incident again drove home the obvious: It's not very often that you find Pierce not playing. He might not always play well (see above), but he's there when the bell rings.

Asked yesterday about Pierce's status for tonight, which is listed as questionable, hoop boss Danny Ainge said, simply, "I'd be surprised if he doesn't play."

Pierce has missed only three games in the last 3 1/2 seasons, all of them last year following what he said was a bad fall on a slippery walk at home. That's it. He started every game he has played under Jim O'Brien, under whose tutelage Pierce has emerged as an All-Star. Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy called Pierce one of the top-10 players in the league Wednesday night.

But Van Gundy didn't see Pierce's "A" game. He didn't see his "B" or "C" game. He saw his Todd Day game. Afterward, Pierce had his sore left hand tended to and said he would get it X-rayed yesterday. But that didn't happen. Ainge said he was unaware of the X-ray situation, but said the films were of a precautionary nature.

"There was swelling there and some tenderness," Ainge said. "I think [trainer] Eddie [Lacerte] felt he might have sprained a ligament and that it got worse from the cold weather. Then he got bumped in the game. I think the feeling was that we'd get the X-rays to be safe. I don't think anyone thought there was anything broken."

That is somewhere the Celtics definitely do not want to go. With all the distractions and disruptions that have gone on this season, Pierce has been the team anchor along with everything else on his very full plate. He and Mike James are the only players to have started every game.

That string should continue tonight. Pierce may not be at his healthiest or even at his best. But he'll be there. His bad games outnumber his missed games. Luckily for the Celtics, he doesn't have very many of either.

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