Paul Pierce not discouraged -- yet

BOSTON -- Paul Pierce reached a milestone of sorts Friday night against the Chicago Bulls. He played in his 971st game as a member of the Boston Celtics, tying him for third place all time with Kevin McHale.

Unfortunately for Pierce and the Celtics, he looked a lot like McHale did in his 971st game, namely, beaten up, worn down and looking for the nearest hot tub after another tough defeat.

We are quickly getting an answer to the question, "How much will the lockout affect the Celtics?" It's not what many, including yours truly, thought. It's as much, maybe more so, about conditioning and being able to play the meat grinder of a schedule and play it well. So far, the Celtics are, to be charitable, a work in progress.

"It's been frustrating," coach Doc Rivers said after Friday night's 88-79 loss to the Bulls, who are in the midst of playing nine games in 12 days and are 7-1 so far in that stretch. It would appear they are in shape.

"But listen, I'd rather have it now," Rivers went on. "You're going to go through adversity or stuff; I'd rather have it right now. Like I told our guys, I said, 'If you get through this, it'll make you a hell of a basketball team.' And I always use the word 'if' because you have to. You have to fight through it."

Which brings us to el capitan. Pierce is the living definition of "fighting through it" right now, and it isn't a pretty sight. He is still trying to overcome the dual challenges of having no training camp and a sore heel -- and his recovery is being played out not in the privacy of the practice court in Waltham, but in full view at TD Garden or wherever the Celtics happen to be playing on the road. (On Saturday, they're in Indiana.)

On Friday night, Pierce was abused by Luol Deng, who carved him up for 21 points and 16 rebounds. Pierce was a minus-16 on the plus/minus chart. He was 3-of-12 from the field and managed a single rebound, that coming in the final four minutes of the game. In his past three games, all defeats, Pierce is 8-of-34 from the field. He has scored 30 points.

Going to the basket, he looks like Marquis Daniels. He can't finish. He had three of his shots blocked Friday. As Rivers noted, "I can't imagine how frustrating it is for him."

Pierce knows he's not where he wants to be, where he needs to be, but as he told a group of reporters afterward, "I think you guys are more discouraged than me."

Still, he acknowledged, "I have to play better for us to win ballgames, and I realize that. I'm not going to say I'm 100 percent. I didn't come back 100 percent. I'm getting back in basketball shape. The heel isn't all the way where I'd like it to be. At some point in the season, it will be. It's nothing I'm worried about right now."

It's clear Pierce might have come back too soon from the heel injury that forced him out of the first three games of the season. He must have felt the need to return to right the ship -- and he had 21 and 24 points in the last two games of the Celtics' four-game winning streak against Secaucus-bound teams.

But then came a 3-of-17 game against Indiana and a strange game against Dallas, in which he took only five shots in 30 minutes. He went 35-plus minutes against the Bulls but was on the bench at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth when the Celtics rallied from a 20-point deficit to make it a one-point game.

He was back in the game when the Celtics had a chance to take the lead, and he rolled off a screen to take a shot we've seen him take -- and make -- a thousand times. He missed it. Then Derrick Rose took over, and the Bulls never looked back.

"That's not going to discourage me," Pierce said. "I'll continue to go out and shoot the shots I normally take. I know they'll fall. It will turn around for me."

That's when he noted that the reporters felt more discouraged than he did.

He's right. A lot of us are, well, concerned. And not just about Pierce. We're wondering whether Kevin Garnett has anything left. We're wondering whether Rajon Rondo is going to survive the season by running into opposing players and hoping to get calls. We're wondering whether the Celtics' rebounding woes will be corrected.

But so much of it starts with No. 34, who is working on his third decade as a Celtic. He's the only one left who can tell Rick Pitino stories. When he takes the floor in Indiana, he will have played more games as a Celtic than anyone save Robert Parish and John Havlicek.

He's earned the right to ask for patience -- and I, for one, won't get discouraged. Not yet.

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