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Posted by Scott Souza October 23, 2008 05:59 AM

For the first few weeks, Paul Pierce hardly let the trophy out of his sight.

The Celtics’ captain brought the NBA Finals MVP bronze to his summer camp in Boston and gave it a seat next to him at the finest restaurants all around town. He took it with him on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in Hollywood and paraded it up and down the Las Vegas Strip so much it could have qualified for comp points.

About a month before the official start of training camp, Pierce arrived back in Boston full-time and began the separation process. He didn’t have much choice. His teammates wouldn’t have appreciated it gleaming on the sideline at scrimmages at the team’s HealthPoint facility in Waltham, and it might have been awkward to keep in tow among the yachts and mansions of Newport, R.I., during training camp.

But Pierce had another reason for letting go. The trophy — the MVP hardware as well as the team’s Larry O’Brien grail for its 17th championship — will always be a part of him and his teammates. It’s just that now his focus has shifted to making sure the awards are part of their lasting legacy instead of symbols of their last hurrah.

“It’s a great accomplishment, no doubt about it,” he said of both the personal and team accolades earned last season. “But once you’ve done it, you realize there’s a lot more basketball in your career left. You think about how much more you want to accomplish. Once you accomplish a goal, you say to yourself: ‘How can I be even better?’

“That’s what I’ve done my whole career. That’s what I want to do this year.”

The process began in earnest on Sept. 30 when the Celtics arrived at Salve Regina University for their first training camp workout. Over the course of that week, they underwent the metamorphosis from champs back to a group of hungry guys chasing a championship.

Very quickly, the preseason took on the same men-on-a-mission feel of last season’s methodic march. If anything, having so many players back from the title squad — 12 of the 15 projected on the opening-night roster — has made the exhibition season more task-oriented exercise and less whirlwind tour.

“What we know is what we did last year,” Ray Allen said of the atmosphere. “I think we’re doing business just the same. We know we have a tremendous amount of talent here.”

At Tuesday night’s season opener, that talent will be in the spotlight once more. Kevin Garnett, Pierce, and Allen will be honored again. The footage from the 66-win regular season, the seven-game series victories over the Hawks and Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference Finals triumph over the Pistons, the Game 4 comeback against the Lakers, and the Game 6 blowout to clinch the title will be shown in all its cinematic glory. The confetti, the champagne, the parade, the unabashed joy will get a well-deserved curtain call.

Then it all goes away, into the recesses of the minds of the players and coaches, much like the sight of Pierce’s trusty metallic sidekick. It will always be there to deliver inspiration, but doing it again will take over as the sole aspiration.

Repeat command

Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been there. As a player in 1984 and 1986, he and his teammates took on the charge of bringing back-to-back banners to Boston for the first time since 1969.
He knows the challenges and he knows the pitfalls. His job this winter was to put together a roster that could best take on the former and avoid the latter.

“Winning’s fragile,” he said. “Last year, a play here and a play there in the Cleveland series and it’s a different result. Things had to go our way to win a championship, and things have to go our way again this year, and we have to be really good.”

The Celtics feel they have the “really good” part figured out and that they have learned enough from last year’s wild ride to make some of their own breaks.

“It starts in practice,” said Pierce. “Our practice habits a year ago were based in where we wanted to go as a team. It’s about understanding the culture around here, how we do things, and it’s every day. Every day, the work we put in at practice carries over into the game. How we do things on and off the court carries over into the game.”

To that end, Allen said having most of last season’s team back has already been beneficial.

“What matters the most is guys knowing what you’re playing for and having the urgency,” the eight-time All-Star said. “That’s why sometimes you get new teams with new blood that don’t carry that tradition of the teams before them the whole year. Then you get some teams with guys where you get complacent. There’s an urgency factor that has to be there the whole time.”

Celtics coach Doc Rivers admits that’s one area of uncertainty for him. Not necessarily concern, because he said he believes the team can handle it with the help of three enforcers named Allen, Garnett, and Pierce, but he said he may rely on the celebrated trio to help him make sure no one tries to be the scene stealer among the ensemble cast.

“I think, individually, there’s been some guys on different days, to me, who have tried to play outside of their limitations,” he said of the preseason. “That’s a byproduct of ego most of the time. That’s something we are going to have to avoid. Players policing players is always better than having me do it.”

Ainge has even greater confidence in the character of the entire roster. That’s why he said he tried to retain as much of it as possible for the title defense. He lost James Posey to free agency, but that allowed him to bring back free agents Tony Allen and Eddie House. He couldn’t talk 39-year-old P.J. Brown out of retirement a second time, but he did bring back soon-to-be-39-year-old Sam Cassell, and he’s looking to Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe to further expand their impact in the frontcourt.

“Last year at this time we had questions about how good we could be,” Ainge said.

“We had a 21-year-old point guard [Rajon Rondo]. We had a 22-year-old starting center [Perkins]. [There were questions about] how the bench would jell.

“This year there are some questions too. We don’t have [James] Posey, and we’re going to do things a little different there with Tony Allen. There’s some questions about how we are going to handle that. But I think there’s fewer questions this time.

“My big question is ‘How will we handle adversity?’ That was my thing when we were a bad team four years ago, and when we were a good team last year. There will be adversity in every game, and every season, and how we handle it and stay together as a team will determine what we can accomplish.”

What’s my motivation?

Pierce compares the championship sensation to a gourmet meal: “Once you take one bite, you don’t want to just put it down and leave. You want to keep eating.”
Ainge takes that one step further.

“I believe that winning is addictive just as losing can be,” he said. “I don’t worry about our players wanting to win and having a desire to win.

“I’m not worried about motivation,” he added. “I am not worried about that with this group. I have been with Perk a long time. I have watched Rajon Rondo since he was in high school. I’ve watched Tony Allen play when he was in college and in his four years here. Motivation is not an issue with these guys.”

Boredom won’t be, either, according to Ray Allen. Just as the team has approached much of this preseason with a purpose, he doesn’t expect the Celtics to be biding their time during the six-month regular season either.

“I wouldn’t know how to do that,” he said. “The regular season is your whole life. It’s the whole winter. You figure the playoffs start and you’re going into May. The playoffs are so far out of our mind right now. But we know what the process is to get there.”

Beyond the pomp and pageantry of Tuesday’s opener, that process is shaping up to be much the same as it was last year, with much the same cast. Rivers will coach for the long haul, while the players attack every game as though it’s their last. The coach will give them days off and lighter minutes whenever possible, with the expectation that they will justify that reward with each focused practice and parquet blitz.

It’s a formula that has worked once. There appears to be great confidence that it can again.

“Guys understand that we won a championship, and it’s a great feeling,” Pierce said.
“We look around and we see the banners, see there’s multiple championships, and say that we want to do it again.

“That’s what sparks a fire in us every day.”

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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