Paul Pierce approaches legend status

BOSTON -- What would passing Larry Bird on the list of the Celtics' all-time leading scorers mean to Paul Pierce?

"It means that I've been in a Celtics uniform for a long time," Pierce said with a chuckle after Sunday's win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Sitting a mere nine points shy of Bird's career total of 21,791, Pierce almost certainly will leapfrog Larry Legend on Tuesday night when the Charlotte Bobcats visit TD Garden.

And while Pierce tried his best to downplay the milestone, the magnitude of the moment certainly registers for the 14th-year veteran, particularly in a season in which there were whispers about whether Boston would explore trading him after a slow start.

"That's something that doesn't happen in this day and age," Pierce said of playing his entire career with one team. "I've been fortunate to play with one franchise for my whole career to date. You don't really see that too much any more. You've got a few guys who still do it, but it's a rarity. It's pretty much extinct."

Some thought these aging Celtics -- practically dinosaurs by NBA standards -- were about to be extinct as well. Boston started the season 4-8 and didn't register a win over a quality opponent until late January. "Blow it up" became the catchphrase of choice for those hurtling themselves from the bandwagon, even as Pierce pleaded for time and patience after missing all of training camp and the first three games of the season with a heel injury.

The Celtics have won eight of their past nine games despite playing part of that stretch without as many as three starters (Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal). Just when the wheels could have come completely off the bus, Pierce leapt into the driver's seat and steered Boston to safety.

Over his last 10 games, Pierce is averaging 22.3 points, 7.1 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks over 35.4 minutes. He should have been Eastern Conference player of the week for the final week of January, but the NBA atoned for the oversight by giving him the award this past week after he carried Boston on its latest four-game winning streak.

Truth be told, he deserved the award just as much this past week, even as Rondo and Allen trickled back into the lineup. Pierce, who had elevated his all-around game in the absence of Rondo, hasn't stopped doing a little of everything on the floor, cramming as many crooked numbers into his stat line as possible on a nightly basis.

Asked about Boston's turnaround in the final week of January, newcomer Brandon Bass summed it up succinctly: "I think we are riding Paul Pierce."

How good has Pierce been? Just look at his player efficiency rating, which measures per-minute production, with the league average at 15. Pierce is currently at 21.6, easily his highest of the Big Three era (it previously peaked at 19.7 last season; his career high is 23.6 during the 2005-06 campaign).

It took Pierce three weeks to find his legs, yet he is still one of the top 25 players in the league in PER. That's downright astounding on this Celtics team.

Pierce entered Monday's action ranked 17th in the league in scoring (18.6 points per game). If he could get up near the 22.3 mark he has averaged over the past 10 games, he'd vault into the top eight -- no small feat considering the amount of talent he plays alongside. Pierce hasn't dabbled in the top 10 in scoring since before Allen and Kevin Garnett came onboard.

It's almost unfair to focus on Pierce simply as a scorer. These last few weeks have emphasized the value of his all-around game, which is taken for granted in these parts. But "scorer" remains the top line of his basketball résumé, and milestones like the one Pierce will hit Tuesday remind us that he might eventually be remembered as the best pure scorer in Celtics history (he's 4,613 points behind John Havlicek for the top spot and would probably need another three more healthy seasons to get near that mark).

"I didn't plan on having any records when I got here," Pierce said. "When you get here, first you learn about the history of the Celtics. As a kid, I didn't know much other than that they were one of the great teams. As a Lakers fan, obviously people know this, but when you step into the history of [the franchise] and understand what being a Celtic is all about, and understanding what Larry did for the franchise and Bill Russell and John Havlicek and Hondo, you come to really appreciate where you've come and what it really means to be amongst these people."

Make no mistake, in the latter stages of his playing career, the 34-year-old Pierce is acutely aware of both his legacy and the milestones he approaches. This is a guy who, after hitting a free throw for his 20,000th career point in November 2010, thrust his hands skyward in celebration (as the Garden crowd went delirious for the accomplishment).

The same thing likely will happen Tuesday night. Pierce will pass Bird's mark at some point during the game and the crowd will serenade him for his effort, especially in passing one of their most beloved stars.

"It's an honor, just being a Celtic for as long as I've been," Pierce said. "These fans are very knowledgeable fans. A lot of fans out here have been able to watch Bird all his career, and a lot of his fans have been able to watch me throughout my career. It'll be pretty emotional.

"I'm just more about my job and trying to win the game. I'm not really going to think about it. I'm not going to be really pressing for it. It's just a fact that I've been a Celtic for so long. I've had these opportunities."

True, but longevity alone doesn't get you a spot alongside the likes of Bird and Havlicek. Sustaining a high level of performance does, and Tuesday's milestone should remind us how spectacular Pierce has been this season and in the 13 before it.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.