OAKLAND, Calif. -- Crossing through the visitor's locker room before Wednesday's 105-103 win against the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics captain Paul Pierce greeted some of the Boston media before shouting, "I'm still here! I'm still here!" while playfully glancing at a clock on the wall.
Less than 24 hours before Thursday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline and a few hours before Kevin Garnett drilled a jumper with 5.1 seconds left to beat the Warriors, Pierce kept a sense of humor about what's often the most stressful time of the year for players.
Pierce's name, like that of his Big Three brethren, has come up in trade whispers as the deadline approaches, but Celtics players and coach Doc Rivers seem extremely confident that when the team bus pulls out of San Francisco on Thursday afternoon, all the same faces in the locker room Wednesday night will be present.
"I would be surprised if we're not [fully intact]. But you never know. Last year I may have made that statement and we traded nine guys," quipped Celtics coach Doc Rivers, referencing how Boston traded five players, including starting center Kendrick Perkins, at last year's deadline. "I mean this thing goes pretty quickly; I guess you're telling me that Dwight [Howard] is going to be back in play, so you never know."
Yes, Rivers, who suggested he was blissfully unaware of the Dwight Drama in Orlando, continued to leave the trade door ajar ever so slightly in case a sweetheart of a deal for an elite player of Howard's status came along and convinced Boston to break up its core. But since that's unlikely to happen, the Celtics seem to believe their usual crew will be on the floor when they tip off against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.
There is a strong likelihood that the team will soon have at least one new face. With news that Chris Wilcox will undergo aortic surgery on March 29 and miss the remainder of the season -- along with the lingering uncertainty about whether Jermaine O'Neal and his ailing left wrist will return this season -- the Celtics are most certainly in the market for a big man.
There's just one caveat: Doc Rivers prefers not to give up anything of real value to get one. And the only way you get an impact big man is to give up a ransom.
"The one thing I said in [my] last conversation [with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge] was that, at the end of the day, I like our team," said Rivers. "Obviously we need a big, but let's not do anything that hurts this team this year or the future to try to get a big. I just don't think we should do that."
Echoing what Ainge hinted at earlier this week, the Celtics' desire is to not part with either a key rotation player or a future draft pick in order to obtain what's merely an average big man. (They might be tempted to up the ante for something more proven, but that deal would have to maintain financial flexibility in future seasons.) Rivers said the team has gauged the NBA frontcourt landscape and the Celtics are not overwhelmed by what they see, particularly among top Eastern Conference foes.
"Really, when you look at the entire NBA, the only big team out there is the Lakers," said Rivers. "Other than that, there's no big teams -- no team that has two dominant bigs. That's the one thing I think we have kept our eye on. I guess [Indiana's Roy] Hibbert would be the only one that we struggle with given his size. Other than that, there's just not a lot of bigs out there."
Which is to say, the Celtics see far more value in holding on to a future first-round draft pick than spending it on a big man who would likely just help limit the wear and tear on their current big men (Garnett, Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma).
Said Rivers: "I like our team. We don't want to give up something this year or something that hurts us later. We just shouldn't do that."
So there's the very real chance that the Celtics will be mere spectators Thursday, though it's hard to imagine Ainge won't try to make at least a minor move on the back end of the bench. Even if the Celtics can't land a big man by the deadline, they could always wait for the best available option to land on the buyout scrap heap and lure him with the prospect of available playing time on a playoff-bound team.
The Celtics can free a roster spot if they buy out Wilcox (or O'Neal, if they determine he's simply unable to return this season, as well). Open spots would allow them to do something as quiet as adding an available player -- maybe even just a D-Leaguer via a 10-day contract.
Here's what it boils down to: After Wednesday's win in Golden State, the Celtics are 8-2 since the All-Star break, when they committed to a starting lineup that features Garnett at the center spot. It's a move Rivers had been pondering since before the season began, and the personnel issues forced his hand.
But Boston has thrived with Garnett at the 5, despite his own initial objections after a career spent at power forward. Given that rotations only get tighter and starter minutes get longer in the playoffs, the Celtics don't need to overspend on a big man quite as much as it might seem at the moment. Boston simply needs a big body to ensure Garnett can still average 30 minutes per game for the next 45 days.
That point was hammered home during the start of this eight-game road trip when Garnett more than held his own while playing extended minutes in back-to-back games in Los Angeles. The Celtics let one slip away late versus the Lakers before bouncing back to beat the Clippers, and if they can survive against two of the most athletic and monstrous frontcourts in the West, then navigating the often slow and rolling hills of the East shouldn't concern them much.
The Celtics believe that they've shown this season that, when healthy, they can compete with anyone, even despite all the head-shaking maladies they've endured. Even with the steady stream of trade whispers throughout the year, the deadline could pass Thursday without much noise and Boston is content to give it their best shot with the core that's led them to so much success over the past five seasons.
"Our [key] is simple: Health," said Rivers. "And then after that, if we're healthy, especially all of our starters, I like who we are. I like our team; I like our team spirit. Then we'll just see what happens."
On Thursday, that could be a whole lot of nuthin'.