WALTHAM -- With 25 games remaining in the season, the Celtics have nothing to play for other than ping-pong balls, but that's not something coach Doc Rivers will attempt to sell his young team. Instead, he's motivating the players by focusing on improvement in practice and challenging them to play the role of spoiler.
"We're spending our practices now on individual drills, on trying to make each guy better," Rivers said yesterday. "We're turning the practices into teaching sessions, and then we're trying to turn their minds on. Young teams, it's just hard for them to see ahead and think ahead and prepare their minds for games.
"Right now, we're not going to the playoffs. What are we playing for? We're playing to get better. We're playing for pride, obviously. We're also playing to ruin other teams' seasons. If ours is bad, well, let's bring some other people down with us."
Boston, winner of two straight, will try to heed that message today against New Jersey. The Nets are a game ahead of Orlando for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, it's easier for the Celtics to play spoiler now that Paul Pierce is back. After going 2-22 without its captain, Boston is 3-6 with him in the lineup. Pierce said the team's modest winning streak shows the potential it had before the season was submarined by injuries.
"What I'm able to do is instill the confidence in those guys," said Pierce. "It's like when the captain goes down on the ship, who is there to steer the boat? The rest of the sailors are used to playing their roles, but that's not their job. Now I'm back and those guys have gained a lot of confidence in themselves -- not that they didn't have it before -- but they know what it means to have me on the court to help them out."
"I felt pretty good playing those minutes, where it was kind of like a struggle the whole West Coast trip," said Pierce. "I felt like the game was going too fast for me, but I think I'm starting to pick it up and get my legs under me with the extra running I'm getting."
"Most young guys haven't been injured, and when they are, they never play, and when they play, they usually don't play, they're just out there," said Rivers. "I think Perk is learning how to play with an injury and how to still be effective. That's a great lesson for him."
Rivers said Perkins will take one to two months off this summer.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.