Wilcox a breath of fresh air

BOSTON -- Given a condensed training camp and the early season injuries his team has battled, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers probably wouldn't be adverse to the NBA taking a page out of the NFL playbook and putting oxygen tanks next to the bench.

In fact, watching Chris Wilcox leave everything he had on the floor Friday night against the Indiana Pacers, Rivers was left pondering the idea of strapping one of those portable tanks to his back.

"You know, if he could play with an oxygen tank, he’d be phenomenal," cracked Rivers. "He’s absolutely dying out there. But he’s still giving us the time and he’s doing everything for us, which is terrific.”

Wilcox, Boston's biggest free-agent splash after being inked at the taxpayer's midlevel exception ($3 million) this offseason, has missed half of the Celtics' games this season due to injuries (shoulder bruise, calf strain). The plan was to ease him back into the lineup when he returned on Thursday night, but injuries elsewhere on the team have thrust him into a larger role and he's responded with his best basketball of the year.

Wilcox scored a season-high 14 points (heck, he only had 15 total points in eight previous appearances) while grabbing six rebounds over 22 minutes as the Celtics topped the Indiana Pacers 94-87 Friday night at TD Garden.

Apprised of Rivers' oxygen tank suggestion, Wilcox didn't rush to disagree.

"Next time, I’m going to try to go out there with one on my back," he said.

With Boston playing without three starters, including center Jermaine O'Neal on Friday night, Wilcox was the first big off the bench and responded with a couple early buckets off pick-and-rolls with assist-happy point forward Paul Pierce. Wilcox registered 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting over 14 first-half minutes, helping Boston open an eight-point halftime cushion.

By the fourth quarter, he was toast, but he gave Boston everything he had as he works to regain his conditioning after being unable to consistently stay on the court over the past month.

"I just wanted to come out and play hard," said Wilcox. "The last couple games I haven’t been able to play, then [Thursday] night [in Orlando] got me a little bit more comfortable. And tonight I just went out there and played hard. I'm a little winded, but it was a good [effort]."

In eight games entering Friday's action, Wilcox had averaged just 1.9 points and 2 rebounds over 9 minutes per game. Injured in the second game of the season in Miami, he missed three contests with a left shoulder bruise, then sat out six straight this month due to a left calf strain.

The plan was to ease him back in on Thursday night in Orlando, but with O'Neal sidelined with a sore left knee and reserve center Greg Stiemsma in early foul trouble, Wilcox got extended run. He didn't provide much offense (four points while making both shots he took), but was extremely active on defensive end and used his athleticism to combat the height differential going up against the likes of Dwight Howard.

"He was great. I thought he was one of the unsung heroes of [Thursday] night, a couple of times," Rivers said before Friday's game. "The first stint in, his activity, his hands -- he’s figured out he’s not going to beat anybody with height, so he plays his defense before the guy gets the ball up. I thought he had four or five deflections on Dwight before he could get the ball up, he already had his hands on the ball. Then a big key was, in the fourth, we had to get Kevin [Garnett] a two- or three-minute blow, when we were making a run. The lead stayed the same and I think he actually got a dunk in that little stretch.

"It was just good to see his activity. What he brings to us is an athlete -- with size -- and that’s good for us."

Added Pierce after Friday's game: "He’s huge for us because he can guard the center position and the power forward position. He’s very physical player, great finisher down low. He’s going to be a key for us moving forward, as far as depth at the big-man position."

Wilcox wore a rubber sleeve over the left calf Friday and admits he's still not where he wants to be physically, but he's encouraged by the effort.

"I’m still kinda sore, but at the same time, we're all grinding, we’re all sore right now," said Wilcox. "We’re all working together, and good things are happening for us right now."

And a solid night on the stat sheet should take some of the pressure off in terms of production.

"It definitely builds my confidence up a little bit more," he said. "I got off to a slow start and injuries held me back. And now I’m starting to get a rhythm, hopefully we can just move forward from here. ...

"I’m not playing the best right now, but at the end of the day, it’s getting the job done. I'm going out there and bringing energy, playing hard, and good things are happening. The best thing is that we’re playing together as a team and we’re getting wins."

And right now, wins are better than oxygen.