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A big Pierce of puzzle: Celtics star changes to fit new coach
By Mark Murphy
Friday, April 22, 2005

Sometimes you see darkness before crawling out into the sun.

Paul Pierce admitted yesterday that during the lowest points this season, he thought about playing somewhere else.

``You think about all of that,'' the Celtics captain said after yesterday's practice, on the eve of his team's third straight first-round playoff series against Indiana. ``At times I thought this was not the best situation for me. What veteran player wouldn't if his team wasn't doing well?

``I never asked to be traded, though. I never lulled, and I never missed a practice.''

He admittedly chafed, though, under the direction of his fourth NBA coach, Doc Rivers. There were fights between the two - some apparently over the top.

``I guess I got a little hot,'' he said of a contentious situation that carried beyond two brief courtside flare-ups with Rivers after he was benched this season. ``I know of one - no, two - arguments that ya'll don't know about.''

Arguments, perhaps, that made it difficult to stay in the same room with his coach?

Pierce paused, smiled quizzically, and said, ``I'll have to talk to you about that later.''

To hear Pierce describe his situation now, it's like last Monday's cloudless marathon weather. He's going to the playoffs for the fourth straight time, with a third seed that flies in the face of the Celtics' struggle to move over .500 the first half of the season.

Back then he was asked to sacrifice points for balance, ego for the greater good, and Pierce wasn't always the good soldier. He often came across as petulant and reluctant, despite a pressing desire to carry the team somewhere better.

``It was a huge adjustment for me,'' Pierce said of dealing with Rivers and his unsparing approach. ``It was not only his style, but also adjusting to the players.

``It was tough on me, because I had to be out here and take a lesser role to guys who were pretty much unproven, and that was hard for me. Once I got past that, I started to feel more comfortable in my role.''

Setting the Pacers

Funny how all routes lead back to the Indiana Pacers.

In more secure times, when the Celtics upset the Pacers in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, Pierce was the most relentless driver in the league. He won the man-to-man battle with Ron Artest, in part because the Pacers couldn't or wouldn't help their stopper, and Pierce pitched a tent on the foul line as a result.

With Antoine Walker gone, the load fell on a dejected Pierce during last spring's sweep by the Pacers. His press conference after Game 3 in the FleetCenter - highlighted by the comment ``this isn't why I signed a long-term contract'' - was as dour as his four-game 34.2 shooting percentage.

His moodiness seemed to worsen this winter. By the time Walker returned via a Feb. 24 trade, Pierce was a drowning, disillusioned star.

Walker, however, chose to look the other way yesterday.

``He's been fine,'' the Celtics forward said. ``When you don't win it's frustrating. Paul's a competitor, and he wants to win. That's a frustrating season when you hover around .500.''

The Walker trade's effect on Pierce's game has been well documented. Double teams have been virtually scrapped. Not coincidentally, Pierce is getting his best looks at the basket in two years, with defenses now pinned by a pick-your-poison rotation that includes Walker, Ricky Davis, Gary Payton, Raef LaFrentz and rookie Al Jefferson.

Perhaps the most notable sign of change is the fact that Pierce, thanks to an 8-of-14 shooting performance against New Jersey Wednesday, finished the regular season with the highest shooting percentage (45.5) of his career.

Rivers admitted there were some hot moments, but he said to look at the end result. With the suspended Artest on the shelf until next fall, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle will have to be particularly inventive to devise a workable Pierce double team.

``I was asking him to do things he never did before, but his numbers improved, and he's a more efficient player now,'' Rivers said. ``One thing I give Paul credit for is that he was not frustrated with the changes, but that the changes weren't working. None of that credit goes to me - it's all for Paul.

``I think he saw us scoring more points, saw his field goal percentage going up, and then making the changes were easy. But he was the guy who made the changes. Last year he got the ball and then everyone stood around and watched him play.''

Beyond the arguments, according to Rivers, there has been plenty of communication.

``We've had a ton of meetings - on planes, in my hotel room, just talking things over,'' Rivers said. ``I want to know, sometimes, where he's at. Sometimes it can be hard to tell. But as coaches we believe in communication.

``I know there were arguments, with me taking him out of a game one time. But I also knew that I had to do what I had to do. At times you know you won't make someone happy. But that's sports. That's what business is, too.''

Growin' on each other

Rivers said that if nothing else, ``We always have respect for each other.''

For Pierce's part, ``I guess I got it, to use one of Doc's favorite terms.''

Rivers' ``They don't get it'' remark - which he pinned on the entire team following a dismal loss in Philadelphia April 12 - clearly grated on Pierce.

But at the same time he said, ``Yeah, I'm happy. We are where I knew we could be. I like our chemistry now, our team. I can't wait to see where we go now. I think we match up with Detroit, Miami and Indiana. This team is the best team I've played on since I've been a Celtic.''

He even smiled when asked about dodging the trade bullet and remaining a Celtic. Then again, he's been around long enough to understand that life is much like the New England weather.

``I could see myself here next year,'' Pierce said with an emphatic but unconvincing nod, as a cloud moved overhead. ``But you never know.''