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Pierce's a feeling good story

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 23, 2010

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SALT LAKE CITY — Paul Pierce hadn’t spoken with the media for more than a week, but he decided to yesterday afternoon following the Celtics’ shootaround at EnergySolutions Arena before their game against the Jazz. He was revealing and honest. He said he’s been playing hurt and was not quite himself until the past few games.

The NBA acknowledged Pierce’s resurgence yesterday by naming him Eastern Conference Player of the Week. And the Celtics have The Truth back just in time for the late-season stretch and for the chase for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Pierce was more troubled by his right knee than he let on. He revealed he had the knee drained immediately after the All-Star Game Feb. 14 and that led to a four-game stretch in which he was 14 for 43 from the field. Finally, coach Doc Rivers watched Pierce struggle to get a shot off during a nationally televised loss at Denver and sat him for three games.

While the play of Kevin Garnett has improved dramatically from earlier this season because his surgically repaired right knee is nearing total stability, Pierce has dealt with a series of injuries, from his knee to his wrist to his ankle. And he has endured ups and downs on the court because those injuries have affected his speed and ability to get open.

The difference in his game now is glaring. Saturday night against the Mavericks, Pierce came off screens crisply, he released the ball with confidence, and when he drained the decisive 3-pointer with 1:44 left, he strolled back to the bench convinced he was prepared to reassume his role as catalyst.

At age 32, Pierce has the capability to play five or six more years if he takes care of his body and stops trying to play through significant injuries. Pierce was 12th among active players in minutes entering last night’s game and played 30 in a 110-97 loss to the Jazz to give him 32,561 in his career. While he doesn’t need to slow down, he needs to take a step back and listen to his body.

“When you’re playing at less than 100 percent, it’s tough, especially at the age I’m at right now,’’ he said. “Before, I could bounce back a little bit faster, but I learned a lot this year about myself with the injuries that I need to take more time off. I was a little stubborn, because in the past I was able to play through it and [this time] it really affected my play.’’

Pierce was barely 21 when he arrived in Boston in 1998 and has been hindered by injury in just one season before now, 2006-07, because of a stress reaction in his left foot. He has been an iron man of sorts, and even when an injury appears serious, such as with his knee in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals, he has returned with vigor.

That vigor remains, but Pierce has to learn to pace himself, especially as he approaches his mid-30s.

An interesting example of another superstar dealing with the reality that youth is not infinite is Kobe Bryant, who shut himself down for five games this season with a sprained ankle, understanding that games in February and March hold little significance compared with playoff games in April and May.

Pierce’s sentiments were understandable. The Celtics were struggling and needed offensive punch. They were blowing second-half leads and looked ragged and uninterested at times. But what Rivers stressed — many times to deaf ears — was there was plenty of time to recapture that confidence and swagger — that same swagger Pierce showed when he strutted back to the bench after draining that 3-pointer against Dallas.

“I’m always motivated,’’ he said. “This is a crucial part of the year when you are trying to battle for playoff position, and at this time you really want to start playing some of your best basketball. We’re starting to show a lot of signs of things that we did earlier in the year.’’

And the same could be said for Pierce, who personifies the Celtics. Boston is not going to win another title with Pierce ailing and struggling. In his previous three games before last night’s, Pierce was 30 for 48 from the field and averaged 28 points in three wins, including at Houston and at Dallas. He had 11 points and 6 rebounds last night.

With 12 games left in the regular season, eight at home, the Celtics have a chance for the No. 3 seed, get completely healthy, and allow the Big Three to fully regain the confidence and precision they had during the 23-5 start. And like Rivers stressed, there’s still plenty of time.

The lesson for Pierce was that taking a break and understanding his limitations will extend his career and the effectiveness of his team. The Celtics do not want this to be the last year they are a factor, and with the Big Three healthy, it won’t be.

“We want to be healthy, we want to be playing well, and that’s where we’re at right now,’’ he said. “I’m feeling pretty good out there, man. The rhythm, the way I’m moving, the way I’m getting off the floor, getting up and down the court. It’s really starting to come together.’’

Just in time for the Celtics.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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