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For Pierce, scars linger in painful Celtics season

WALTHAM -- Losing is the only thing that got them noticed.

The irony of that is not lost on Paul Pierce, the franchise player for a Boston Celtics team virtually ignored across the nation until it dropped 18 consecutive games.

The Celtics remain in the spotlight as they wind down a dismal 2006-07 campaign. Pundits continue to track their futility so they can handicap the Celtics' chances of landing Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. The team's fans wish fervently for a hard-fought game highlighted by dunks from Gerald Green, no-look passes from Rajon Rondo, and another notch in the loss column.

Pierce has grown accustomed to the Just Lose Baby! mentality of paying customers. But for Boston's five-time All-Star, who will turn 30 Oct. 13, the lost year represents another squandered attempt to coax the Celtics back to respectability.

"It's definitely another year gone by for me," Pierce said. "It's another year we don't get into the postseason. It's another year I don't get recognized for the things I do. I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks."

Pierce has been a model captain this season. He genuinely enjoyed participating in the development of his younger teammates and has toiled through injuries and frustrations without complaint. He plays hard, he plays hurt, and he has maintained his poise throughout.

But he is tired of waiting for the resurgence of the Celtics. Pierce signed a contract extension last July that locks him up until he's 33. Asked if he regretted signing the deal, which paid him the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, he merely smiled.

"I'm waiting to see what happens this summer," he said. "We have to see who we keep and who has enough potential trade value to make a difference.

"I'm not talking about winning a few more games. I'm talking about getting into the playoffs, going deep into the playoffs. I don't want to be a team that just sneaks in. I want to be on a team that everyone says before the season, 'This is a team that's going somewhere,' like Detroit.

"Either we go for it, or we don't."

Truth and consequences
Pierce concedes he is bothered by his diminished standing in the game because of his affiliation with the Celtics. He is not featured in NBA promos. Even though he was injured during All-Star balloting, his name was rarely mentioned as a worthy choice had he been healthy. Boston was one of just six teams that did not appear on national broadcasts this season. Major endorsement opportunities outside of New England have slowed to a trickle. "The Truth" has become an afterthought.

"I want to be recognized for what I've accomplished," Pierce said. "That may sound selfish, but I've sacrificed a lot. I want to win. That's all I want. Most great players are selfish.

"We're not on a winning team, and as long as that's true, I don't get recognized as one of the top players in the league. We're never on TV. I wasn't part of the All-Star Game [this season]. We just don't get the benefit of so many other things that winning teams get."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers maintains next season, when the team is healthy and a year older, all of those perks will resurface. He and Pierce contend they would have been a playoff team this season had Pierce not suffered a stress reaction in his left foot and missed 24 games.

"But I understand Paul's frustration," Rivers said. "He deserves to be an All-Star. He deserves to be on ABC, so people can see him. The problem is no one wants to see us."

How Boston's front office rectifies that situation will determine whether Pierce will want to remain in Boston. This summer is the most critical in the tenure of head of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who will be dealing from strength with a high draft pick, an expiring contract (Theo Ratliff's $11.66 million), and a cadre of young players that includes Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen, and Rondo.

If the pick is No. 1 or No. 2, the Celtics will draft Oden or Durant (in that order). If it's No. 3 or lower, team sources said, they will shop it.

Wanted: Marquee veteran
Although the draft selection continues to draw the most attention, the most pivotal transaction will be if Boston can pry free a marquee veteran. Minnesota All-Star Kevin Garnett will likely be available, but he can opt out of his contract next summer. Acquiring him only makes sense if he agrees to an extension, and that will only happen if the Celtics can prove they have what it takes to contend for a title -- immediately.

Memphis star Pau Gasol, a talented player with multiple skills but viewed as soft by some in his own organization, was on the trading block this winter. If the Grizzlies, who boast the worst record in the league, end up with Oden, they might decide to pull Gasol from the market and build around him and the big man from Ohio State.

Pacers veteran Jermaine O'Neal has suggested he might want to move on, but he has also made it clear he prefers to play away from the basket rather than in the trenches. He, too, would have to be sold on Boston's immediate future.

None of these players will come cheaply. The asking price would likely include some combination of the draft pick (particularly if it's Oden or Durant), Ratliff's contract, and Jefferson.

Jefferson emerged as a legitimate double-double man during Pierce's absence, and continued to put up numbers when Pierce returned. Big Al's upside is obvious and the Celtics would prefer to keep him, but their other young players simply don't carry the same cachet. To acquire a veteran All-Star, Jefferson will likely need to be part of the package.

"I like playing with Al," Pierce said. "I've made a lot of friends in this business. But you can't put those two words -- friends and business -- in the same sentence. I hated to see Antoine [Walker] go. He was my friend, but some things you don't have any control over."

This winter the Celtics were prepared to deal Jefferson to acquire Allen Iverson from the Sixers. They were not willing to part with Jefferson to take on oft-injured Carlos Boozer from Utah.

Neither transaction occurred, but as Boston stumbled through its 18-game losing streak, Pierce came to the realization the team as constituted wasn't nearly as good as he thought it was.

"I was shocked at what happened," Pierce acknowledged. "I didn't think we could lose 18 in a row, no matter who we put out there. But that just shows you how badly we need another veteran player.

"Veterans know how to squeeze out wins, even when there are injuries. Good teams are able to maintain until great players come back. We weren't that kind of team."

While he was injured, Pierce said he considered many things, including requesting a trade.

"I had so much time to sit there and think about my future," he said. "I'm looking at us losing and I'm saying, 'Man, what do we really have here? Is there hope? Where do we go from here?' "

Pierce said he's willing to reach out and sell Boston to potential acquisitions.

"I'd love to play with Garnett," Pierce said. "Jermaine O'Neal, too. Boozer's a good player, but he's been hurt so much. Guys with a short history of getting hurt are always going to get hurt.

"I also like Gasol. He's proven. He could have easily said this season, 'We suck every night, I'm not going to play,' but he didn't. He put up numbers instead.

"If he was in the Eastern Conference, he'd probably be an All-Star the rest of his career. We don't have the glut of forwards and big men they have out West."

A quick glance at Celtics history tells you why Pierce has ruled out the team acquiring a big name in the free agent market.

"Boston has never been a free agent spot, you know that," Pierce said. "Guys want to go somewhere warm. That's not going to be the best option for us. The things we need to get done need to happen through the trade and the draft. The only other way is to offer a free agent something they can't possibly refuse. You've got to come up with an offer sheet that's just so much more money they can't turn it down, and that's not likely to happen."

Positive reaction
It would be no surprise if before tonight's game in Philadelphia Pierce gives in to his myriad ailments and shuts it down for the season. Rivers revealed Wednesday if he had his way, Pierce would have done that after the diagnosis of the stress reaction in his foot. Pierce traveled with the team to Philadelphia and is a game-time decision, team officials said.

"When Paul got that injury, it immediately brought back negative images of Grant Hill in Orlando," said Rivers. "I thought Paul was out for the year. When he wanted to come back, I objected strenuously. It scared me. The doctors had to tell me, 'Doc, this isn't the same thing as Grant Hill.' "

In retrospect, Pierce's return was good for morale, the team's record, and for the franchise player, who felt it was important to prove to his teammates he wasn't quitting on them.

"I'm really impressed with Paul," Rivers said. "With the injury he had there was no chance for him to get back in great shape, but he came out and played as hard as anyone on the team."

The plaudits for Pierce are a welcome change from early in his tenure with Rivers, when the coach and the player clashed. Pierce was also questioned by management about his late-night activities. Team sources said Pierce has toned down his partying considerably in the past year.

"Hey," Pierce said, gesturing at the court, "this is where I work. I'm not a drug addict. I'm not out every night until 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning. I'm in control of my life. What I give them between the lines is their concern, and I don't think they have any complaints about that. The rest is my business."

Has anyone questioned him about his night life?

"They probably asked once or twice, but it didn't last long," Pierce said. "Because I told them the same thing I told you just now."

Pierce may have questions of his own to pose depending on what happens -- or doesn't happen -- this summer.

The Truth has made it clear: No more lost years or the Celtics could lose him, too.

Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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