Efficiency becomes Paul Pierce's game

Paul Pierce matched his season high of 28 points in the Boston Celtics' 99-95 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday. He was nearly perfect from the field (9-of-11), blaming the two misses on (A) getting fouled and (B) "the rim must have moved." He also made all six of his free throws.

But three plays Pierce made Wednesday speak to the ever-evolving game of the Celtics' captain because none of them involved him scoring -- and two of them were on the defensive end. The guy who once was known and, occasionally, feared as a pure volume scorer is still that -- but he's more than just a points machine.

As coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday, "He has been off the charts. All season."

The most memorable of the three plays was, of course, The Pass. Pierce had the ball to himself at the top of the key, examining the Blazers' zone defense. He had it going, as they say, so he was a logical choice to take the shot. But he saw Andre Miller cheat a little and whipped a pass to a wide-open Ray Allen, who up to that point had missed 11 of 13 shots and all five of his 3-pointer attempts. Allen, of course, made the 3, clinching the win. Pierce insisted he'd make that same play every time.

Actually, he has made it at least once before. In the Big Three's first season together, the Celtics appeared to have lost a game in Charlotte in November. The Bobcats led by two points near the end and had the ball for an inbounds pass. But the pass was deflected and ended up in Pierce's hands. He had little time to shoot, but he saw Allen at the top of the key. He passed it over, and Allen, who until that point had missed 11 of 14 shots, including all five of his 3-point attempts, naturally drained a 3 at the buzzer to win the game.

"How can you not make that pass? Ray Allen is one of the best shooters in NBA history,'' Pierce said Wednesday. "Ray Allen wide open for the game is a no-brainer. I'm going to give it to him.''

He said almost the identical thing three years ago.

The first of the two defensive plays came shortly after the Celtics had taken the lead for good in the third quarter. They led 72-70 when Pierce, who was assigned to stop Wesley Matthews (who to that point had scorched Allen), bottled up the Blazers in the corner to force an air ball and a subsequent 24-second violation.

Then, in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics were in the midst of building their commanding (ha!) 16-point lead, he made a perfect rotation to stop a driving LaMarcus Aldridge, giving Kevin Garnett enough time to get back into the play and block Aldridge from behind.

Plays like that are more the norm than the exception these days for Pierce. But they can and do occasionally get overlooked because of what Pierce is doing at the other end of the floor. He was always a scorer. He was never an efficient scorer. Now he is.

He's doing it so efficiently and devoid of drama that his numbers have been eclipsed by the myriad of other Celtics stories this season: Shaq. The injuries. Shaq. The play of Rajon Rondo. Shaq. The return of Delonte West. Shaq.

Friday's opponent notwithstanding -- Pierce had his lowest output of the season when he scored only 10 points against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 5 -- you can make a case that Pierce is quietly putting together the most efficient season in his NBA career.

He's shooting 52.5 percent from the field; his career average is 44.6 percent and his career high is 47.2 percent. He leads the team in scoring (19.7 per game, with Allen's 16 in second). He's shooting a career-best 45.6 percent from 3-point territory (let's not forget, he is the reigning 3-point king, although his career average is 36.9 percent).

Pierce is shooting 84.4 percent from the line as one of the few Celtics who actually, you know, gets to the line. He also is hitting the boards like he used to after a couple of years in the rebounding wilderness, including a 14-rebound intake against the New York Knicks, his biggest haul in nearly three years.

He's becoming more vocal in huddles, in practice and during games.

"First off, he came back in phenomenal shape,'' Rivers said. "And when I look at the numbers for Paul, the first one I check is rebounding. If he's doing that, he's on his game. And he is. He's defending as well as he ever has. He's helping me as a coach by being more vocal. He's just playing with a great, great spirit."

Rivers said he saw a change in Pierce on the first day of training camp. He saw a Pierce chastened by the loss to the Lakers and eager to get another shot. He saw a more focused Pierce at practice.

Rivers wasn't the only one who noticed the change. So, too, did No. 34.

"I've become a more mature player with every year,'' Pierce said. "I put in the extra work at practice, the extra preparation time now. I'm just getting better the older I get. Like fine wine."

The Bulls must be near circuit overload these days after a long road trip and a first game back against -- thank you, scheduler -- Orlando. (Chicago got hammered.) Pierce averaged 21 points a game against the Bulls last season but was 4-of-14 from the field last month in Chicago's first visit to Boston.

Think new Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau knows a few things about Pierce? Then again, knowledge does not necessarily translate to power when it comes to Pierce, who can be as unpredictable as he is effective.

"If you ever are completely bored and you study [his] shots, he releases the ball from every [conceivable] angle," Rivers said. "Ray releases the ball from the exact same spot every time. Paul is like a pitcher who can throw sidearm, over the top. It's just amazing. He's a professional scorer.''

Yes, he is. But he also has become a whole lot more.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.