BOSTON -- Al Jefferson positioned himself on the block, asking for the ball. That didn't mean he was expecting to get it. The Celtics were down two points to the Knicks and five-time All-Star Paul Pierce, who has been the go-to guy in these situations for the past eight years, was maneuvering toward the basket with the rock in his hands.
Jefferson was mildly surprised when Pierce threw it to him in the post. As the double team converged, a common strategy since Jefferson began racking up double-doubles (he had 30 in the team's first 52 games), Jefferson did what he thought Pierce wanted him to do.
He passed it back.
"Next thing I know, Paul is yelling at me,'' Jefferson said. "He's screaming, 'C'mon man, keep it!' That's when I realized, 'Wow, I guess I really do finally have his respect.'"
But does Pierce have Jefferson's back? After another lost Celtics season in which the team will fail to make the playoffs for the second year in a row, Boston's superstar recently expressed his frustration over his team's abysmal track record, lamenting, "I'm the classic great player on a bad team, and it stinks.''
Pierce continues to lobby for Boston to bring a proven veteran to the Celtics. He recognizes the price could be steep. The team's bargaining chips include the lottery pick that will be coming the team's way in the June draft, Theo Ratliff, whose expiring contract is worth $11.66 million and is attractive to teams looking to carve out salary cap space, and a collection of young, unrefined talent that Danny Ainge, the Celtics' head of basketball operations, has been stockpiling.
It's no great mystery which of the youngsters will draw the most interest -- Jefferson -- and while Pierce prefers to rebuild with Big Al in tow, he acknowledged the price of acquiring a high level talent like Kevin Garnett or Pau Gasol might require parting with the young forward.
Team sources confirmed that if the Celtics end up with either the No. 1 or 2 pick (which would land them either Ohio State's Greg Oden or Texas' Kevin Durant, in that preferred order), they will not trade it. That would leave Jefferson, who was averaging 15.8 points and 10.9 rebounds a game before being sidelined with a bruised knee, as the major bait for a major veteran.
Big Al, meanwhile, consistently has chafed at the incessant talk of Oden in Celtics green.
"We don't need a big man," he sniffed recently. "We already have one.
"I just hope and pray Danny believes that me and Paul are the ones who can get us to the playoffs."
Ainge acknowledges this is the most critical offseason of his tenure in Boston. Although impatient fans are clamoring for a change, both in the front office and the coaching ranks, owner Wyc Grousbeck insisted Tuesday his intent is to stay the course with Ainge and coach Doc Rivers.
"I'm confident both guys will be back next year,'' he said.
Rivers, who next season will be in the final year of a contract that pays him $4 million annually, has lobbied publicly for an extension. Grousbeck said that determination won't be made until the end of the season, and when it is, it will be Ainge's call. Team and league sources said if Rivers persists in pursuing the extension, it could cost him his job.
"My personal opinion is that Doc has done a very good job given what he's had to work with this season, in terms of youth and catastrophic injuries,'' Grousbeck said. "He coaches his heart out on every play. He goes for all 48 minutes. If people are happy with the progress of a player like Al Jefferson, they should pay attention to the guy that has been coaching him the past three years.''
While Jefferson's third year certainly has been the charm, his sophomore campaign in 2005-06 was a calamity. He reported to training camp out of shape and injured his ankle partway through the year. What was originally diagnosed as a sprain kept Jefferson sidelined for weeks. When he did return, he was ineffective and favoring his foot. Whispers began emanating out of his own lockerroom that he was too soft to play through the pain. Teammates privately questioned whether Big Al was tough enough.
"I took a lot of crap,'' Jefferson said. "It was really frustrating. The people who were doubting me were the same people who said I was the future of the team the year before. I don't know if any of my teammates were included in that. I kind of doubt it. But if they were, they aren't doubting me now.''
"Al didn't handle playing injured well,'' Rivers said. "If you are hurt but you're playing, you still have to find ways to help your team win. Can you still make a shot if you are a shooter? Can you still rebound the ball if you are a rebounder? Al thought because he was still out there he could still do the stuff he was doing before he got hurt. When he couldn't do those things, he was at a loss. He didn't know how to help the team.''
Jefferson said the only person who remained solidly in his corner during his struggles was Ainge, who eventually decided to shut down his young big man for the remainder of the season. Subsequent tests determined Big Al needed surgery. In a peculiar twist, it was good news, because it validated the concerns Jefferson had been communicating to his team.
"I had seen Al play a lot, so I knew he wasn't right,'' Ainge said. "He was getting discouraged, and I don't think discouragement is a good germ to have if you want to get better.
"He's matured so much since he got here. His work ethic has changed dramatically. I used to joke with him, 'Al, you were born tired and lazy.'"
Last summer Jefferson committed to staying in Boston for the team's conditioning program. He began seriously lifting weights for the first time in his career and spent most mornings doing agility drills and floor work with teammate Ryan Gomes. He lost 30 pounds, changed his diet dramatically and almost immediately noticed the benefits, particularly in terms of stamina. Jefferson said he will participate in the same program again this summer and will avoid retreating to his home state of Mississippi, where bad habits await.
"I've got to stay away,'' he said. "If I was home in Mississippi, I'd be eating my mom's fried chicken, and my grandmother's collard greens, cornbread and sweet potato pie. If you don't eat her food, it's like a slap in the face.''
Rivers said Jefferson's defense remains a work in progress, which is not a surprise since all he ever played was zone defense in high school. Big Al still struggles on some of the team's defensive rotations, although he's done a much better job this season of identifying the difference between a good foul and a bad one.
Offensively, his skills continue to improve dramatically. In Jefferson's rookie season, the Celtics lost to the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs, in part because coach Rick Carlisle came at Jefferson with a host of trapping double teams. A flustered Jefferson simply did not know how to handle the pressure. He's far more adept now at either staying one pass ahead of the double team, or splitting the defenders with an array of post-up moves he's picked up from watching film of Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon.
"The bone of contention I have with Al is getting him to catch the ball in better spots," Rivers said. "Al sometimes runs to the open gap instead of establishing position and posting up.
"But his scoring has to impress you. Single coverage is the thing of the past with him.''
Jefferson said he believes Ainge will hang onto him and allow him to be part of the nucleus that brings the Celtics back to respectability, something Jefferson promises will happen as soon as next season.
"I just feel like we've got something going here," Jefferson said. "But I understand it's a business. I don't want to go anywhere. But getting traded for Kevin Garnett? Hey, that would be big."
"It would be really, really hard to trade Al,'' Ainge said. "I say that because of what I see, what he can be, and who he is right now. It's always hard to trade players you like, but I would do it if it made the team better.
"But what I'd say right now is not only would it be hard, it would be unlikely, too.''
The team will know more when the draft lottery order is decided in May. The Celtics need to land either Oden or Durant. Plan B is decidedly less palatable.
Of course, they have been down this road before. In 1997, Rick Pitino accepted the job as president and head coach of the Celtics with the belief he would land Tim Duncan in the draft lottery because Boston had the worst record in the league.
"And we all know how that turned out,'' Rivers said. "That's why no team in their right mind loses games on purpose. The basketball gods will get you."
The Boston Celtics know all about that. It's been 21 years since they hoisted a championship banner, and 20 years since they've been to the NBA Finals.
"I can get us there,'' said Al Jefferson. "Me and Paul. Just give us the chance."
Jackie MacMullan of The Boston Globe is an NBA columnist for ESPN.com.