Paul Pierce not giving up the ship

BOSTON -- He quietly acknowledged the obvious -- that each remaining game in this playoff series with the New York Knicks could signify his last in a Boston Celtics uniform.

"Sure," Paul Pierce admitted, "that could be true."

Pierce has been a member of the Celtics for 15 seasons, arriving as a wounded young college stud determined to prove his draft day critics wrong, slogging through some occasional missteps that ignited streams of controversy and criticism, yet also cementing himself as a perennial All-Star.

As he matured, he learned to be more patient and better prepared, and his union with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen led him to a championship and a coveted role as a revered elder statesman. Through it all, of course, he was always, always, in the words of his coach, Doc Rivers, "a professional scorer."

Contemplating the end of an era can be simultaneously daunting, upsetting, emotional, motivating, and, according to Rivers, a distraction. When asked Sunday before Game 4 against the Knicks if he believed any of his players were ruminating about their futures, the coach answered, "Well, if they are, they won't play well."

Paul Pierce hadn't played very well in this series. Through three games, he was shooting 40.8 percent from the floor and was a hideous 2-of-16 from the 3-point line, second in playoff long-ball shooting percentage futility only to Chicago's Luol Deng. He also came in averaging 5.3 turnovers a game, a byproduct of a heavy workload as a ball handler and passer that his coach conceded was "asking too much."

Rivers cautioned his players beforehand not to play "hero ball," not to try and win it all on their own. Pierce can be prone to that, and while the Celtics did not want him to strap the team on his back, the consensus was that without a big game from Pierce, Boston's season -- and, perhaps, a major chapter in his life -- would come to a close.

"Actually, I had a good calmness about myself today," Pierce explained. "I didn't really think about the aftereffects of [the game]."

The Celtics captain felt so confident about Game 4 he called ahead to some friends in New York to arrange dinner plans for Tuesday night in advance of Game 5.

"I was relaxed today," he said.

Not for long. The Celtics blew a 20-point third-quarter lead, trailed by 2 with 1:18 left, then hung on in a frenetic overtime to nip the Knicks, 97-90, and avoid a series sweep.

The obvious knight in Celtics shamrock armor was the much maligned Jason Terry, who finally provided the clutch shooting that Boston officials had boasted in the preseason would make everyone forget about Ray Allen.

The more subtle postgame hero was Brandon Bass, whose dogged defense on Carmelo Anthony (10-of-35 shooting) played a major role in his team's victory. Jeff Green's 26 points and six boards were noteworthy in that he continued to attack the glass the way his coach has been imploring him to do since he came aboard two seasons ago.

And then there was Pierce, the professional scorer who checked out with another multitask stat line. He scored early, missed some forced jumpers midway through, hit a couple of big shots late, rebounded the ball, guarded Melo when Bass and Green slipped into foul trouble, assumed his role as facilitator (six assists) and ball handler (six turnovers) with mixed results, and walked off having logged a game-high 49 minutes, 51 seconds. He scored a series-high 29 points on 9 of 20 shooting.

"I'm pretty tired," he confessed afterward.

We all know the potential scenarios by now. When the Celtics finally succumb to the younger, faster, deeper Knicks, the front office will take a good, hard look at this broken roster, which has the smallest margin for error of any professional basketball team in these parts in recent memory, and they will make some tough decisions.

The inevitable word -- rebuilding -- seems imminent.

The Celtics likely will gauge interest in Pierce and KG on the trading block, as they did before the trade deadline. They could buy out Pierce for $5 million (he's due to make $15.3 million) or use their amnesty clause to waive him. Garnett, who took only seven shots in this win, has not been himself and might be looking at yet another offseason surgery that could convince him it's time to retire.

Moving forward would be a sound business decision for the future of a franchise that is clearly at a crossroads, but that doesn't do much to preserve the legacy of Paul Pierce.

Pierce is a Celtics legend and an NBA Hall of Famer, yet he hoped to be one of the dying breeds who begins and ends his career in one place.

When he's gone, you will yearn for him during the dreary days of starting over. Celtics fans have taken for granted Pierce's remarkable production and consistency. You will see those once-guaranteed 18 points a game move on -- it's so much harder than it seems.

Pierce makes posting up smaller players (as he did to Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd at various parts of this game) look like layups. He rebounds the ball in traffic against players significantly bigger than him. He takes charges.

And he has never -- ever -- shied away from taking the big shot with the pressure squarely on his shoulders.

Boston streaked out to a 54-35 halftime lead because Pierce (6-of-9, 17 first-half points) hit shots. The Knicks made the decision to use single coverage on Pierce when he got the ball on the block -- a curious strategy since they had been able to force him to cough up the ball with two or three defenders trapping him in previous games.

"I was sort of surprised," Pierce said. "Usually they are trying to get the ball out of my hands a little earlier. I try to take advantage of it when I'm not getting trapped and be as aggressive as I can."

Elite players possess the innate ability to deal only in positive self-talk. They put those 5-for-20 shooting nights behind them and never look back. Pierce always has been able to do that with little effort.

His teammates on the current Celtics roster have not been so successful. Avery Bradley struggled through another shaky outing, pressing on offense (1-for-7 shooting, a number of them ill advised) and trying to overcompensate on defense.

Rivers sat Bradley down in the third quarter and might have left him there for good had Bass not fouled out of the game.

Courtney Lee was a DNP, coach's decision. Jamal Crawford was his streaky self. Terrence Williams logged some minutes, but there is too much tentativeness in the backcourt for Boston to be efficient offensively. It will, in the end, be the undoing of this team.

Pierce acknowledged the veterans have to somehow better prepare their younger teammates for the bright lights of the postseason.

"You've got to have a mindset," Pierce said. "You've got to continue to instill confidence in the young guys and make them understand it's a bigger stage than they are used to standing on.

"Jet understands it, I understand it, KG understands it, but a lot of these guys don't have that type of experience we have."

Pierce is going to force his offense at times -- that's the downside of a shooter who's convinced every jumper he takes is a good one -- but the Celtics simply cannot win without him.

He's the one who momentarily stopped the bleeding when New York cut Boston's lead to 69-67 by swishing a three. He's the one who answered when the Knicks grabbed their only lead of the day (84-82) on a Felton foul line jumper with 1:18 left in the game.

Pierce gathered in the ball, waited for the crowd of Knicks defenders to converage on him, then swung the ball to Garnett for an open jumper.

Pierce missed an 18-footer over the outstretched arms of Tyson Chandler that would have won it at the buzzer in regulation, but then put his team ahead by draining the first shot of overtime.

That set the stage for some sorely-needed Jason Terry heroics, a development Pierce hopes will continue as his club prepares for Game 5 on Wednesday.

The captain will savor his dinner with friends in New York, successfully postponing an examination of his future for at least three more days. He is 35, and exhausted from a night's work better suited for a young All-Star such as Carmelo Anthony.

Make no mistake. Paul Pierce isn't complaining. He lives to fight another day in the only NBA uniform he's ever known.