PORTLAND -- The trading deadline came and went yesterday at 3 p.m. EST, and as executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge promised, Paul Pierce remained with the Celtics.
Theoretically, that means Ainge and Pierce have a two-month reprieve before trade rumors become heated again. When the season ends in mid-April, Pierce might be the subject of much speculation even as Ainge talks about his commitment to building a core with the players already in place, starting with the captain. Pierce is the team leader in points, assists, rebounds, and steals.
''I hope all the Paul Pierce talk is done," said Ainge. ''If you don't understand all the rumors over the last year were idiotic and untrue, I don't know what else I can tell you."
When asked if Pierce would be with the Celtics next season, Ainge said, ''Yes." When asked if that meant the whole season, Ainge repeated, ''Yes."
There was no equivocating.
Maybe Ainge is serious about committing to Pierce, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, Al Jefferson, and Kendrick Perkins. Ainge said the Celtics were not even close to making a trade yesterday. Maybe the basketball executive has slowed just enough to wait and see what develops, rather than draw more unflattering comparisons with Rick Pitino, a never-satisfied mover and shaker. Yesterday marked the first time in his tenure with the Celtics Ainge did not make a move at the deadline. Maybe it is a sign of things to come.
''I like the guys we have," said Ainge, who claimed the Celtics did their deadline deal Jan. 26 when Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Marcus Banks, and Justin Reed went to Minnesota for Szczerbiak, Michael Olowokandi, and Dwayne Jones.
Ainge added: ''I'm not looking to get rid of anybody. I am looking to add. It's not like we're finished. I'm looking to see how well we jell, how the team develops, how the chemistry all works. I'm not satisfied by our record, but I've been encouraged by a lot of things throughout the course of the year.
''I didn't do anything [at the deadline] to have us win a couple more games the rest of this year, and take away time from the young players for development. I didn't want any Band-Aids. In the summertime, I want to be more certain of what we have right now."
To plot his next move, Ainge wants to see more of his core players compete together, something that has not happened as often as he would like because of injury. By the time Perkins returns from a dislocated left shoulder, and assuming Szczerbiak will soon put his left knee troubles behind him, the Celtics could have about six-plus weeks with a healthy squad. That should give Ainge a good idea of what he has. Until then, he will scour gyms overseas and stateside for talent.
Ainge follows the motto that the three D's, the ''draft, deals, and development," are the cornerstones for building championship teams. Recently returned from a European scouting trip, he departs in a few days for almost two weeks of college player evaluation. Meanwhile, the young Celtics look more like the NBA players Ainge envisioned. If Ainge was itching to do a deal before the deadline, the way West, Ryan Gomes, and Gerald Green performed against Phoenix in a 103-94 loss Wednesday night was enough to give him pause. West scored a career-high 30 points. Gomes recorded a career-high 10 rebounds and earned his first career double-double with 11 points. Green finished with career highs in points (13) and rebounds (9). And they did all of this while being asked to step up for injured teammates.
''The future is definitely bright," said West. ''You're seeing flashes game to game from all the young players. It's kind of inconsistent, but they are there. So, I think the future is actually creeping up on us. I definitely like what I see out of the young guys. Once we get back healthy, I think we're still in the hunt for the playoffs."
If the young players can keep developing as they have in recent games, there is reason for optimism. But Ainge, the owners, and fans need look no further than Jefferson and Tony Allen to see just how big an ''if" consistent development can be. Injury has wrecked havoc with Jefferson's and Allen's sophomore seasons. Two sprained ankles (one right, one left) have sidetracked Jefferson. Just as he appeared fully recovered from the first sprain, he was felled by the second.
Allen is a bigger concern. He has not been himself all year after offseason right knee surgery. With the opportunity for a breakaway dunk against the Jazz, Allen opted for a layup. He might not return to the form he showed as a rookie until next season.
But Ainge dwells on the positive.
''I've been encouraged by the development of Perk and Al and Delonte, particularly now," said Ainge. ''It just clicks for players. At some time in the last couple weeks, things have really clicked for Delonte. He just seems to feel more liberated, and I don't know why. Gerald has come a long way. I know it's just one game, but I just saw some things in his body language and effort [against Phoenix] that are very important. I think I've always felt Ryan was capable of doing what he's doing right now. I think Doc [Rivers] has, too. Everybody has."
With the roster at its most depleted, the Celtics have played their best basketball of the season. They have done so with young players on the road. But just as quickly as they raised their games, they may stumble and inexplicably lose confidence. Just look at how Orien Greene has struggled lately. For now, Ainge is prepared to wait it out through the steps forward and the falls back.
But for those who could not get their fix yesterday, don't worry. More deals will be done by Ainge this offseason. A team 12 games below .500 heading into the homestretch of the regular season has to change something sometime. Ainge is just waiting for the right time and the right trade.