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Irish Coffee: Making the most of Paul Pierce’s minutes

10.03.12 at 6:29 pm ET
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Generally, what happens in preseason games has little bearing on the NBA’s regular season, but keep an eye on how Celtics coach Doc Rivers manages Paul Pierce‘s minutes over the next couple weeks.

“We’re going to try some things with Paul in the preseason,” said Rivers, “and just see how that goes.”

Last season, Rivers instituted Kevin Garnett‘s 5-5-5 plan, playing his center in five-minute increments. While Garnett’s time on the floor each game barely changed (31.3 in 2010-11 vs. 31.1 in 2011-12), his minutes were less taxing, and that paid dividends in the playoffs, when he enjoyed perhaps his greatest stretch in a Celtics uniform.

The plan is to execute the same plan for Garnett and a similar one for Pierce this season, although both the Celtics captain and Rivers admitted playing that duo on the same 5-5-5 schedule might not benefit the team.

“Doc is the coach around here,” said Pierce. “I trust his judgment and everything he does. We’ve been together a long time. I’m giving myself to the team. Whatever’s going to be best for the team, that’s what it’s gotta be. I think with me and Doc, we’ll figure things out, because if I’m on fire the first five minutes I can’t come out. Simple as that.”

“I’m all for it,” countered Rivers. “Paul is a gym rat. Paul is a guy I’ve never really worried about with minutes, but I’m going to watch his minutes. Obviously, if we can keep [Rajon] Rondo’s minutes down, we will. And Paul’s minutes down. It doesn’t mean we will. It would be nice. I like our bench.”

That last addendum could be the difference this season. Despite approaching his mid-30′s, Pierce’s minutes per game haven’t changed much the past three seasons (34.0, 34.7 and 34.0, respectively), and that can largely be attributed to having Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic and an ailing Mickael Pietrus behind him.

Paul Pierce

For all the criticism of Pierce’s wheelchair moment five years ago, he played at least 79 games in nine of his 11 seasons from 2000-11. Yet, the Gumby-like Pierce started last year on a bum foot and finished it on a bum knee. In fact, Celtics president Danny Ainge even considered trading Pierce last season, and while the (almost) 35-year-old turned back the clock after the All-Star break, the time has come to manage his minutes.

So, rather than trade Pierce, Ainge provided reinforcements around the franchise’s second-leading scorer.

“I’m very excited,” said Pierce. “I think Danny has really done a good job adding depth to this team. As you see a year ago, if we just had a little depth, we felt like we could’ve probably been in the NBA championship, but a lot of that had to do with the injuries. Of course, with the loss of Ray Allen, it was important to make the moves that we made -– adding Courtney Lee, adding Jason Terry, bringing Jeff Green back, bringing Chris Wilcox back.

“The added depth is really going to help us in the 82-game season, especially with the aging veterans like myself and Kevin,” added the Celtics captain. “On those long trips and those back-to-back nights, when you have fresh young legs and guys who can really play, they’re going to help us out during the tough stretches throughout the season that you go through. We did a tremendous job of adding that to our team.”

The Lee acquisition and Green re-signing could not only keep Pierce fresh for the playoffs but prolong his Celtics career. Not only can each play the 3 — Lee in smaller lineups and Green in bigger ones — but both can play alongside Pierce, guard tougher small forwards in certain situations and give Pierce a break defensively.

“Courtney looked really good,” Pierce said after the team’s first official practice. “The way he can knock down shots, the way he defends, he can take pressure off me, because he can defend the 2 and the 3, so we can kind of switch off in that area. He’s going to blend in nicely with the offense and the defense that we have here.”

Asked later about Green’s potential impact, Pierce added, “He’s a guy that makes our lineup so versatile, because he can switch from the 3 to the 4 in a small lineup. Or he can make us a big lineup with him at the 3 and me at the 2, and it can cause matchup problems. He’s going to be a big key for us.”

Take the Heat, for example. LeBron James and Shane Battier often play side-by-side in Miami’s two forward positions, and last year Pierce was forced to carry the scoring load on one end and defend the league’s three-time MVP on the other. Now, at least in stretches, Green can defend James, and Pierce can guard Battier.

Or take the Knicks and Bulls. Lee can guard Carmelo Anthony and Luol Deng for stretches, giving Pierce a rest on New York and Chicago’s shooting guard du jour. While Pierce’s time on the floor may remain the same, his minutes become less taxing — the same as the 5-5-5 plan did for Garnett.

“The good thing about our lineups is that we have a lot of different lineups that we can throw at people, but the most important thing is that we have to be good at those lineups,” said Rivers. “Having Jeff to be able to take some of Paul’s minutes away would be great. Having Jeff to play the 4 at times would be great. Having Jason to play 1 and 2. Courtney the same thing. It just gives us a lot of flexibility.”

Much of the coaching staff’s summer has been spent concocting lineups and divvying up minutes, and how that applies to Pierce should be one of the fascinating story lines between now and Christmas Day.

(Have a question, concern or conception for the next Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

Read More: Boston Celtics, Courtney Lee, Doc Rivers, Jeff Green
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