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JACKIE MACMULLAN

It's been put in the past by Pierce

The familiar blue and yellow uniforms dotting the parquet in pregame warmups did not send Celtics star Paul Pierce spiraling into a series of painful flashbacks.

It was against last night's opponent, the Indiana Pacers, that Pierce unraveled in the 2005 postseason, losing his cool, his shirt -- and a huge chunk of his credibility after his implosion in Game 6 of the opening round of the playoffs was replayed from coast to coast.

There's Pierce, ejected from the game at a critical juncture. There he is, defiantly removing his shirt and waving it above his head as he left the court. There he is again, meeting the media with a ludicrous bandage wrapped around his jaw, mocking the referees and embarrassing the most decorated franchise in the NBA.

It is behind him now. Truly, it is.

''I haven't watched it," Pierce said. ''I sort of left it there."

It isn't easy to rebuild trust with fans, teammates, and coaches. Ask AWOL Indiana forward Ron Artest. He failed in his attempt to put a far more egregious incident behind him, and has disrupted his team yet again with his criticism of his coach and his request for a trade.

Pierce has done the opposite. He has been a reliable teammate, accommodating to the fans and the media, and solicitous of a coach that he once chafed against. He offered a public apology for the embarrassment he caused, something Artest could never bring himself to do. He has been a leader, a team guy, and has flat out been one of the best players in the league through the first two months of the season.

It hasn't been easy to erase the image he projected last May. Pierce spent most of last summer evaluating himself and his future with the only team he has ever played for, while his reputation absorbed a beating.

His initial conclusion: He asked the Celtics for a trade.

''I mentioned it," he admitted. ''At the beginning of the summer, I thought that was the best thing. But I wasn't going to do it through the media. I talked to them myself."

The problem, he quickly learned, was asking for a trade took his future out of his hands. All the various landing spots were relayed to him in one way or another, and some of them frightened him. Executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, for instance, was enamored with point guard Chris Paul (good call, Danny), and at one point the Celtics and Trail Blazers discussed the No. 3 overall pick and Nick Van Exel, whose contract was about to expire, for Pierce.

''When I heard that one, I made it known [to Boston] that I wasn't going there," said Pierce. ''And, as the summer went on, we just never got to the point where it [a trade] became a real serious option."

There were still issues to resolve. One of the most critical was for Pierce to make peace with coach Doc Rivers, who didn't hesitate to challenge him, criticize him, or sit him if he didn't like the results. Coaches don't normally treat stars that way. Pierce barked out his displeasure, but Rivers, to his credit, held firm.

''I just think we didn't communicate as much as we should have," Pierce said. ''We aired it out at the beginning of this season. He told me what he expected of me, and we left it at that. I respect Doc. He played this game. He's still a young coach. He's still learning. So am I."

Pierce has been woven into the fabric of the Celtics landscape for so long now, it's easy to forget he turned just 28 in October. His contract is up in two years (three if he exercises an option worth $16.3 million), and he will have some decisions to make.

''Obviously, at this point of my career I'd like to contend for a championship," he said. ''If things keep going backwards, that's something I don't want to do."

With yet another infusion of not-yet-ready-for-prime-time talent instead of a veteran presence, it's obvious Boston will be taking yet another step to the rear this season with an eye toward the long-term future. How long can Pierce live with that?

''You've got to put everything in perspective," Pierce said. ''I've had a lot of ups and downs, but Boston, for the most part, has been loyal to me, starting with taking me with the No. 10 pick.

''My loyalty is to the franchise. And, as time goes on, and things develop, if there's a situation where I think it's time to go, hopefully they'll be loyal to me."

In the meantime, coming into last night's game Pierce was averaging a career-high 26.6 points a game, sixth in the league behind such luminaries as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. He was averaging a career-high 8.7 rebounds, shooting a career-high 49 percent, shooting a career-high 3.5 percent on 3-pointers, and submitting a career-high 1.5 steals a game.

''What I'm proudest of Paul for is that he's moved on," Ainge said. ''It's not what he did, but how he responded to it.

''Everybody makes mistakes. Paul was in a situation last season where we were on a nice little roll, then our season ended in a very ugly fashion.

''Did he deserve criticism for our [playoff elimination]? No. We won the game that he was ejected from. Did he deserve some criticism for his behavior? Yes. But there was no way I was going to be down on Paul Pierce because of that. That's ridiculous.

''Things like this happen in pressure situations. I don't think what Paul did was near as bad as what Scottie Pippen did, and he's one the 50 greatest players of all time."

For those of you who have blocked out those Bulls years, in 1993-94, Pippen's first season without Michael Jordan (his Airness was in Birmingham, Ala., trying in vain to hit fastballs), he refused to take the floor in the waning seconds of an Eastern Conference semifinal playoff game against the Knicks because coach Phil Jackson diagrammed the final shot for Toni Kukoc, instead of Pippen.

Kukoc went on to hit the shot, and Pippen went on to earn a scarlet letter he carries with him to this day.

Pierce will do his best to erase his own badge of shame, knowing full well that some people will never let him forget. Scars heal eventually, but they never disappear.

''I really don't worry about that," he said. ''If, at the end of the day, that's all they can say about Paul Pierce when my career is over, I'm fine with that. I've never had problems off the court. I've got no blemishes on my family, nothing."

In a perfect world, Al Jefferson becomes a 20/10 guy next season, Gerald Green's voice changes and he actually gets to act like one of the big boys, and Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins, et al experience a quantum leap in experience and ability.

If not, the clock continues to tick, and as Pierce settles into the prime of his career he might ask for that change of address again, only this time with conviction.

''I understand what we're up against," Ainge said. ''It's a race against time. But I really believe Paul is one of those players who can bridge the gap with these younger players. He's the kind of guy who will still be playing at a high level in his 30s. He could be like a Reggie Miller with these young guys, if he wanted to."

Don't ask Paul Pierce about the future. He is trying to immerse himself in here and now. Last night against those blue and yellow uniforms, he poured in 25 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in 40 minutes, and received absolutely no technicals.

Sure beats the past.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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