Fresh from riding a stationary bike and dressed in practice clothes, Paul Pierce last night looked deceptively close to returning from a stress reaction in his left foot prior to the Celtics' game against the Sacramento Kings at TD Banknorth Garden. Twenty minutes later, wearing a beige sports jacket, jeans, and protective boot on his injured foot, Pierce said he hopes to be back in action early next month, though he will not rush his return and may not be back until after the All-Star break.
The Celtics' captain expects to remain in the boot for "probably the next five days."
"The foot is coming along pretty good," said Pierce. "I saw a lot of improvement in the last week in its healing. I just have to sit back and wait. Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks, I can get into some practicing or something.
"Hopefully, [I'll be back] the first week in February, that's what I'm trying to target based on how my foot's been healing. Maybe in the next 10 days I can get a couple practices in before I try it out in a game. I definitely want to get a few practices in before I try to go out and play . . . I'm hoping I can be back before All-Star break. I want to make sure it's completely healed so I don't have any setbacks on it."
Recent X-rays have shown noticeable progress and Pierce feels improvement when he walks. When first diagnosed a month ago, he felt pain from the top to the bottom of his foot, radiating through his three outside toes. Last night, he said there was still some slight pain on the top of his foot and through his middle toe. The next X-ray is scheduled for Wednesday.
Pierce acknowledged the injury was much worse than initially thought when the team predicted he would return to action in 2-3 weeks, closer to a stress fracture than a stress reaction. He also said he pushed himself too far before the diagnosis and "had no business coming out for the second half [of the Golden State game Dec. 20]."
Around the three-week mark, Pierce considered seeking a second medical opinion. He changed his mind upon viewing the most recent X-rays. Still, it has been difficult to sit tight through the longest layoff of his eight-plus-year career.
"Maybe I'm getting old," said Pierce, half-joking. "Maybe I need to wear insoles."
When asked if all the minutes he has played carrying the load for the Celtics were catching up with him, Pierce said: "Maybe so, but I have a lot of miles and I haven't missed a lot of games. Maybe this is something that can extend my career, this little rest period . . . I'm not going to push the panic button. I'm only 29. I feel like I've still got five, six good years left. This is the first roadblock in my career as far as injuries. It was probably bound to happen one day. You knock on wood that it doesn't, but it did. I can't let that get me down. I can't say that it was my conditioning that caused me to get injured. Things like that happen in sports."
Pierce will think long and hard about his health when making future basketball decisions, including his commitments to play for Team USA. Pierce acknowledged he had second thoughts about competing for the national team given his foot injury. Left elbow surgery kept Pierce from joining the squad last summer.
"I have to look at [the commitment to Team USA]," he said. "I look at the team they put out there last [summer] and I probably would have been the oldest player on the team. It definitely makes me think twice about going to join the team later in my career with me having the injury that I'm having. So, maybe I'll sit out another summer."
On the other hand, Pierce hopes his injury doesn't keep him from participating in the All-Star Game if selected for the sixth straight time.
"It would be great, but I think right now my health is more important," he said. "Regardless, it will be a great All-Star Game. It would be nice for me to play in it. If I'm able to come back before the All-Star Game and the coaches pick me, great. If not, I've got to get prepared to be healthy after the All-Star break.
"If I'm healthy I'm on there," said Pierce. "I can't think of 12 guys better than me in the East."
Again, half-joking, Pierce added: "I can't think of three."
Pierce should know, since he has watched a lot of basketball while recovering. He likes what he sees from the younger Celtics, commenting the team reminds him a lot of his rookie season when the Celtics were said to be stocked with young potential such as himself, Antoine Walker, and Ron Mercer.
"It's been frustrating [watching the Celtics lose], but at the same time it's been refreshing seeing different guys step up, different guys try to come into their own, different guys getting experience," said Pierce. "Guys are playing with a lot more confidence. When I come back, I want them to continue to play with that kind of confidence and stay aggressive. Guys tend to defer when I'm out there and I tell them all the time that I want them to be aggressive and play the way I know they can play. It will be interesting to see. We've still got to get that chemistry back. When you've got a guy missing for so long and having so many injuries throughout the year, you go through your chemistry woes."
After his first practice, Pierce will have a better idea of how long it will take him to return to top condition. When determining whether the Celtics still have a chance to make the playoffs, Pierce figures the most important factor will be how the pieces fit together in the coming months. But for now, the only pieces that need to fit solidly together are in his left foot.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.