Pierce: Most pain gone, some lingers

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Paul Pierce was out to lunch at Johnny Rockets in his native Los Angeles this past summer when he noticed a young man come in, buy a burger, and do a double-take when he spotted the Celtics star. Instead of approaching Pierce, the teenager quickly dashed out of the restaurant.

Pierce wasn't sure why the kid was in such a hurry -- until he returned about 10 minutes later.

"He came back with the biggest Lakers flag I've ever seen," Pierce said. "Asked me to sign it. I snatched that thing from him and threw it [across the room]."

No, Pierce hasn't recovered from the excruciating Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals in June. His frustration over missing 10 of 15 shots in the deciding game lingers, along with the knowledge that opportunities to win it all are fleeting, particularly when you reach an age when your body can betray you at any time, as Pierce's repeatedly did throughout the 2009-10 season.

The fact that he is finally healthy -- "that didn't happen until the summer," Pierce explained -- and Kevin Garnett has fully recovered from knee surgery are two reasons why Pierce likes Boston's chances as the team opens its season Tuesday against the locked-and-loaded Miami Heat.

"I feel great for the first time in a long time," the Celtics captain said.

The 2009-10 campaign was so physically and mentally challenging for Pierce that he seriously contemplated shutting it down midway through the season. Injuries to his knee, foot and thumb were well documented, but Pierce revealed he also suffered from a painful and persistent turf toe that forced him to wear a brace and a half-inch of padding in his shoe throughout the Finals.

The first sign of trouble was a sore knee that wouldn't respond to treatment and forced Pierce to undergo "minor" surgery on Dec. 23, 2009, to clean out an infection. Doctors warned him that fluid would build up in the repaired knee, but Pierce wasn't expecting to have it drained nearly every week. Sometimes, Pierce said, the knee would "pop open," squirting foul liquid across the locker room.

"If you are interested, I have the video to prove it," he said.

It happened moments before the Celtics took the court for a Jan. 29 game at Atlanta, and, to the horror of his teammates, Pierce cleaned himself (and his uniform) up to the best of his ability, then went out and dropped 35 points on the Hawks in a team-high 37 minutes.

And so it went for the next three months, as Pierce's "geyser" knee often erupted without warning. The release of the fluid helped the flexibility in the joint, but also prevented him from rehabilitating the injury properly.

"I was probably a little stubborn about not letting it heal right," Pierce admitted. "I told them I was fine, but I had this fluid leaking out all over the place. It wasn't so much the pain. I just lost all my strength. I played a lot of last season on basically one leg."

In a Feb. 1 win over Washington, Pierce sprained the middle part of his foot when he became tangled up with Caron Butler. Less than three weeks later, he severely strained a thumb ligament on his shooting hand.

The injuries were mounting, and Pierce's effectiveness was diminishing.

"I just wasn't right," Pierce said. "I was taking like five shots a game and I wasn't that aggressive. I thought if I took two or three days off, that would take care of it, like it always used to. But it doesn't work that way when you get older. I started saying to myself, 'Maybe I should shut this down."'

He shared with his wife Julie what he was contemplating, but not Doc Rivers or Danny Ainge. His teammates, for the most part, were unaware how much he was struggling physically.

"I didn't know," said point guard Rajon Rondo. "Paul's a 'no excuse' guy. His attitude is, 'I've got to keep going."'

After a 104-93 loss to Cleveland on March 14 that all but ensured Boston would not be able to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, Rivers called the now-famous meeting to inform Pierce and KG he planned on cutting their minutes, both in practice and in games.

"KG is even more stubborn than I am," Pierce said. "He kept saying, 'I need minutes to get my rhythm back.' But by that point, I started getting in line with Doc."

The rest helped both Pierce and Garnett regain their footing for the stretch run. By then Pierce's knee, thumb and foot had almost healed, but the development of the painful turf toe on his right foot left him grimacing through the Finals.

Pierce refuses to point to injuries as the reason the Celtics lost. The Lakers, after all, played with an ailing Andrew Bynum and a banged-up Kobe Bryant, who underwent offseason knee surgery after he won his fifth title. The Truth also dismisses the theory his team was old and worn down in the final minutes of Game 7. He points to the 23 offensive rebounds the Lakers grabbed as the difference in the game.

"I can't stop thinking about the Finals," Pierce said. "I feel like during this whole preseason, Game 7 is the only thing they played on NBA-TV. Every time I see the Lakers celebrating and that confetti coming down, I say, 'OK, enough' and I turn it off."

In the wake of that loss, Pierce was criticized for trying to take over the game by himself in the final crucial minutes, reverting to a 1-on-1 style that eschewed effective ball movement.

"If that's what people are saying, they are entitled to their opinion," Pierce said. "But at the end of the day, we were all doing everything we could to win.

"So what did those people say after we won Game 5 [when Pierce scored 27 points]? Did I do it by myself in that game?"

Pierce expects the added size of Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and the surprising 7-footer Semih Erden to help solve their rebounding woes. He claims Marquis Daniels is "a totally different player," and says Glen Davis was the most impressive Celtic in preseason.

"His body is so much better," Pierce reported. "Baby has always had good footwork and used his body real well. But now he's more agile and his range has expanded."

When Michael Jordan saw Ray Allen after the Celtics won the 2008 NBA championship, he told him, "The first championship is luck. Come back and see me when you win another one."

"I don't believe that," Pierce said. "There's nothing lucky about winning a championship. They all count. They all matter."

Pierce isn't shy about his desire to cement his legacy as one of the great players of all time, both in Boston and beyond.

"If we had won that second championship, where does it put me?" he asked. "Top 50? Top 100? I'm not Shaq. He says he doesn't have anything left to prove. I don't have four rings, four titles.

"I'm still trying to move up the ladder. I'm not done yet."

Jackie MacMullan, who spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.