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Archive for Tuesday, April 13, 1999

CELTICS REBUILD WITH PIERCE

April 13, 1999

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— They tore down the old barn on Charles Street some time ago.

The delightfully dusty Boston Garden now has been reduced to a pile of rubble, not an uncommon sight in this infrastructurally-challenged town.

The city fathers built the Fleet Center in its place -- one of those neo-hip palaces with a zillion luxury boxes and booming sound system. They moved all of the championship banners into the Celtics' new home a couple of years ago, and even installed a sort of parquet facsimile on the arena floor.

But it isn't the same. Not even close.

Not just because the Fleet Center offers a few silly amenities that the Garden didn't have, like toilets that actually work and whatnot. No, the big difference is that the Boston Celtics actually used to win basketball games in the Garden. A lot. Sixteen NBA titles to be exact.

Nowadays, the Celtics recline in a state-of-the-art locker room, take the floor amid a maze of smoke and lights, then roll over and play dead.

The most storied, successful team in NBA history has gone 64-136 over the last three years. And that's why the Celtics now have Paul Pierce.

"There were so many expectations for us this year. For us not to be playing well is really frustrating," Pierce, the former Kansas University All-American, said Sunday night just moments before the Celtics eked out an 87-81 victory over another storied team fallen on hard times, the Chicago Bulls. "I have a feeling things will turn around.

"As we grow older, we're gonna get better. We just have to continue to grow."

When the Celtics floundered to a 36-46 finish in 1998, they found themselves sitting on the 10th pick in the NBA draft. They then received a gift last June when the multi-talented Pierce fell into their hands in a flurry of draft-day numbskullery.

Pierce won a few games himself in a venerable, old barn called Allen Fieldhouse. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Californian arrived on Mt. Oread in 1995, and promptly helped the Jayhawks go 98-11 over the next three seasons.

He departed for the riches of the NBA a year early last spring, but not before carving a considerable niche for himself in KU's storied basketball history: 1,768 career points (fifth-leading scorer in school history), 676 rebounds (12th all-time) and a consensus spot on the 1997-98 All-American team.

Kansas rattled off 46 straight home wins during Pierce's stay. Conversely, the Celtics are just 7-9 this year in the plushness of Fleet Center.

There's no Raef LaFrentz or Jacque Vaughn here. It's Vitaly Potapenko, Greg Minor and more losing than Pierce has ever experienced in his life.

"This is something I've never gone through before," he said. "The travel, playing three games in three nights, the team not playing as well as you'd like; it's been a real challenge.

"But you gotta stay strong, no matter what. This is the most games I've ever lost in one season. It's tough on me. I hate to lose. But you just try to stay confident, stay focused on improving and stay mentally tough. If we can do that then I think things will eventually turn around for us."

Pierce was inserted into Boston's starting lineup by second-year coach Rick Pitino from Day One, and the 21-year-old responded immediately. He averaged over 20 points, seven rebounds and 35 minutes a game, and was promptly named February's rookie of the month.

But Pierce's sizzling start was cooled when he sprained his right ankle in a game at Charlotte on March 9. He sat out just two games and returned before his ankle was healed.

Rookie mistake. The pain in his ankle soon spread to his confidence, and he failed to reach double figures in scoring over the next five games.

"I had never been in that situation before," Pierce said. "I think I missed just one game the whole time I was at Kansas, and that was against a Division Two school (Emporia State in 1997).

"I was sittin' there on the sidelines and I just got impatient. It was tough for me to sit there and watch.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd sit out a little longer and let it heal. But, you know, live and learn."

Pierce is healthy again and his game has returned. He has scored in double figures the last five games, and in the process has even helped the Celtics embark on a mini-winning streak. They've actually won three of their last four games.

For all of his spectacular moments, however, Pierce is a rookie and as such is prone to the occasional gaffe. In the closing seconds of Sunday's game, Pierce guarded an inbounds play and took a swipe at the ball as Chicago's Ron Harper tried to release it. Pierce's technique is a common late-game ploy in the NBA, devised for the defense to take a peek at the other team's offensive set.

The only problem? Boston had already been given a delay-of-game warning earlier, meaning Pierce's swipe was an automatic technical foul.

Boston won and Pierce escaped to the locker room. A few minutes later, legendary Celtics president Red Auerbach strolled in with his customary cigar, and promptly needled his talented forward.

"He (Pitino) just explained to me what happened, and I knew there had to be a good reason because I told him you couldn't be that DUMB," a smiling Auerbach boomed.

"No ... the ref," Pierce stammered. "I mean, I thought he said we had one to give and he was actually saying we had one."

With that, Auerbach placed his arm around Pierce's broad shoulders and whispered a few words of encouragement in his ear.

Pierce smiled, and then turned around to offer an answer to one final query.

"Has this season been a challenge? Absolutely," he said. "But no matter what happens, I'm gonna have fun. I'm never gonna be down on myself.

"It (playing in the NBA) has been all I expected, night in and night out. I'm learning a lot and playing against the best competition in the world. So I'm always gonna have fun."

-- Matt Tarr's phone message number is 832-7147. His e-mail address is mtarr@ljworld.com.

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