WALTHAM — Accolades to Kevin Garnett. He has been everything, if not more, that the Boston Celtics and Danny Ainge bargained for in that monumental 7-for-1 player trade last summer. The Most Valuable Player Award talk is deserved.
Maybe, though, it's time to honor the person most responsible for the most incredible worst-to-first turnaround in National Basketball Association history.
And that's "The Truth," as in Paul Pierce, who earned the moniker from Shaquille O'Neal after torching the Lakers for 42 points on March 13, 2001.
That's right, Paul Pierce.
As the Celtics embark on a playoff run that many expect to be reminiscent of Larry Bird Era two decades earlier, opening with the Atlanta Hawks tomorrow night at the Garden, Pierce deserves as much credit as Ainge or Garnett.
"A lot of guys talk about wanting to win. I hear it all the time," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But to be honest, few of them really mean it. Paul meant it."
That's right, Paul Pierce, 30, the guy many of us looked at as a ball-hog and whiner, really and truly wanted to win. With the additions of Garnett and Ray Allen, he had to make it work.
It was Pierce who, in demanding the Celtics bring in the goods to make a run at as a championship contender, had the most to lose.
"Paul was going to have to give up a lot," says Rivers. "He had to give up some points. He had to give up some leadership. He had to give up the ball. He had to give up his comfort zone."
Before Garnett was acquired, Rivers and Allen took Pierce out for a trip.
"I'm not saying where we went, but it was just the three of us," says Rivers. "And we talked about what we needed to do, what he needed to do. It was then I brought up that he was going to have to give up his comfort zone. We were going to be better, but he was going to give up some things. And that's not always easy for a superstar to accept."
There has been no sulking, one of his early faults. And there have been no demands.
"I remember Paul earlier in his career, when he was a great talent," says Allen. "He always got his points. There wasn't always a lot of talent around him, but still, he would get his points. Sometimes it looked like that might have been his focus."
Rivers recalls a conversation he had with Pierce during his first season with the Celtics in 2004-05.
"I told him I wasn't happy with the way he was playing," says Rivers. "It wasn't efficient. Sure, he was scoring his points, but if he's shooting 39 percent (he shot a career worst .402 the year before), that's not doing us any good. We needed him to score the same amount of points, but do it with less shots.
"He was also holding the ball a lot and guys would just be standing around. Basically, I told him it was not fun to play with him."
Bam! Talk about a wake-up call.
Ainge jumped into the fray, too. Though, it appears he was more the good cop to Rivers' bad cop.
"I'm not saying it has always been perfect with Paul, but I always knew, from talking to him so much, that he wanted to win," says Ainge. "I think most of his problems were out of frustration. But I never questioned Paul's intentions."
Pierce admits there has been some growing up, but he says for too many seasons it seemed like his career was wasting away.
"The bottom line is for so long we've had so many young players," says Pierce. "Some of them you could see had talent. But it takes time to develop guys in this league. You don't immediately become 'a player' as (a teenager). It was frustrating because we weren't winning — for me and for everyone."
Among the many reasons Ainge believed in Pierce when few people did was Pierce's love of the game.
"I like to do a lot of my work at the Waltham office at night, when things are quiet and nobody is around," says Ainge. "I can't tell you how many times I would hear someone in the gym and see it was Paul. He loves basketball.
"Paul has a balanced life. He really does," says Ainge. "But basketball is important. I think I've always seen that in him."
The off-season calls started coming two seasons ago. Ainge would call Pierce and let him know what he was trying to do, which veterans he was going to try and bring in.
"I told him that we were looking at Kevin Garnett long, long before we actually got him," says Ainge, who admits to asking Timberwolves president Kevin McHale about Garnett as far back as four years ago.
"When it fell through the first time, I know he was disappointed," says Ainge. "When the talks started again (this past off-season), I called Paul a few times to let him know. He didn't return my calls. So I don't think he believed it."
Pierce laughs about Ainge's recollection.
"He's right. I didn't believe him. Or at least I didn't want to get my hopes up," says Pierce. "The last couple of years a name would come up about possibly coming here. First it was AI (Allen Iverson), then it was Baron Davis, then was somebody else. But nothing would happen."
When it finally did happen, on July 31, Pierce, who himself is a new father, likened it to basketball's version of a birth.
"This is a tremendous day," Pierce said on G-Day. "I feel like a rookie again."
Pierce's numbers took a hit this season. For the first time since 2000, his average dipped below 20 points per game. His rebounding dropped nearly a full rebound per game to 5.1.
What's up with that?
"That's one of the best things I've come to realize about Paul," says Garnett. "He doesn't care about the stats. He really doesn't. From the day I arrived, all he has talked about is getting 'W's.' His stats don't matter."
Well, there are a few that do.
One is free throw percentage. Pierce shot a career best .843 from the line.
Not only that, his penchant for missing big free throws at the end of games has disappeared.
"That was one thing Paul worked on all off-season," says Ainge. "I talked to him about his free throw shooting. He needed to get more of a routine. He changed his style and his form. You have to give him all of the credit."
Yes, you have to give Paul Pierce, the only player still with the C's from when Ainge took over in May of 2003, a lot of credit.
He really does look like a rookie again, rested and ready for basketball games in April, May and hopefully June, like he has never been before.
He looks like he is ready to carry this team to a place he has never gone before ... the NBA finals.
"The thing is not a lot has changed with Paul from when he first got here," says Ainge. "He is still our go-to guy. He always will be. It's just nice to know he doesn't have to be 'the guy' every night. It's nice to know we can win a game when Paul doesn't play his best."
It's also nice to know that Pierce is recognized as a winner, and is as much a Boston Celtic as Bob Cousy and Larry Bird.
"I've never been happier," says Pierce.
And that's the truth.
You can e-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Breaking down the series
Records: Celtics 66-16, Hawks 37-45
Games this season: Nov. 9: (at) Celtics 106, Hawks 83; March 2: (at) Celtics 98, Hawks 88; April 12: Celtics 99, (at) Hawks 89
Celtics: They had the second best home record this season (35-6) and the best road record (31-10). They have three All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, all of whom have are hungry for their first rings. Doc Rivers did a nice job giving them plenty of rest late in the year. Sam Cassell came on late and is a proven big-game performer.
Hawks: Ex-Celtic Joe Johnson (21.7 ppg) is a great jump shooter. The Hawks have most of their success when 5-6 players are in double figures. Point guard Michael Bibby, a former All-Star, was a big mid-season addition. Rookie power forward Al Horford (10.1 points, 9.7 rebounds) may have his hands full with Garnett, but he is fearless.
Burt predicts: This is easy. The Celtics will win in four straight. They are better at every position and they might have the best bench in the league, too. They are also rested, having clinched homecourt throughout the playoffs earl. There really isn't a weakness because if they struggle on offense, their defense is always there.