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Irish Coffee: Don’t forget about Paul Pierce

10.29.12 at 12:18 pm ET

Paul Pierce has been an afterthought this Celtics camp. Well, you know, as much as the captain and face of the NBA’s most storied franchise — and one of the league’s few legit title contenders — can remain in the shadows.

Think about it. The summer began with the return of Kevin Garnett, whose arrival five years ago saved a team relegated to mediocrity for two decades. And it ended with the emergence of Rajon Rondo, who grabbed the reins for the next 10 years. In between, Ray Allen spurned the Celtics, who in turn made their own headlines: Drafting Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph; adding Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jason Collins, Darko Milicic and Leandro Barbosa; re-signing Brandon Bass; and restoring Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox.

Meanwhile, Pierce quietly shared a family photo at the beach here or a picture of his workout routine there. After all, he too rehabbed from injury — a sprained left MCL this past June that may have meant the difference between a Game 7 loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and a third NBA finals appearance in five seasons.

Heck, Pierce had to share his 35th birthday on Oct. 13 with C’s coach Doc Rivers, who turned 51 the same day. Even his admission to potentially retiring or requesting a trade had Garnett not returned barely moved the needle, as they say. Such is the life now of the 10-time NBA All-Star entering his 15th season for the same franchise.

“I probably take more days off to rest my body and save some of the miles in the summer, but I do enough to be ready for training camp and to be prepared for the season,” he said. “I know what I need to do to be ready, and that’€™s the key.”

By now, Pierce knows the routine. Step 1: Arrive at camp. Step 2: Answer questions about his conditioning, contract and career goals. And Step 3: Etch another season into his Celtics legacy, carving through defenses with the same plodding approach he applies when trade rumors fill the ebbs and flows of winning and losing streaks.

Have you lost weight? “They’ve said that the last 10 years I’ve been in the NBA,” he told reporters on Media Day in September. “I just shift it around.”

Feeling any pressure in the final guaranteed year of your deal? “The pressure I’€™m putting on myself is far greater than anybody can put on me. I expect to go out and perform well every year, I expect to go out and play at a high level, and I expect to go out here and be one of the best players in the NBA every year that I step out here.”

Still want to retire as a Celtic? “Hopefully I can be around next year and the year after. The goal is to hopefully retire with Kevin. He just recently signed a three-year deal, so I see my career kind of ending along the path of his.”

The reason Pierce may have threatened retirement or requested a trade is probably the same reason his tune changed about testing free agency when his contract expires either this summer or the next (C’s own a $15.3 option in 2013-14): As long as Pierce can continue to contend for championships in a Celtics uniform, he doesn’t want to play anywhere but Boston. As he said Sunday, “It’€™s like no other place.”

Once Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge brought back 36-year-old Garnett and brought in 35-year-old Terry, “I knew that we were headed toward trying to win another championship and not rebuilding,” Pierce explained in late September. “Usually, when you’€™re rebuilding, you’€™re looking for younger guys, but we’€™ve added veterans to mix in with the younger guys, and that just shows that not only Danny but the ownership are committed to excellence and winning a championship here. What more can you ask for? I’€™m very excited, especially at this stage in my career, that we’€™re continuing to try to get that elusive trophy that we haven’€™t got in a few years.’€

Not only do those reinforcements bolster the C’s for the near future, they improve Pierce’s chances of effectively contributing to their title hopes beyond 2013. In Green, Lee, Terry and even Barbosa, Rivers might finally survive without 35 minutes a night from Pierce while easing some of his burden as primary wing scorer/defender. As Pierce admitted, “We’€™ve never had this many scoring threats off the bench since I’€™ve been a Celtic.”

“We’€™ve got a lot of weapons, so whether it’€™s my scoring or my passing, game in and game out I’€™m just going to try to get a feel for what I need to give the game,” he said. “But hopefully with the weapons we’€™ve got, it’€™ll open up the floor a lot more, especially with Jason, Leandro and Jeff Green. Those guys, especially with the small lineups — we’€™re going to have a lot of small lineups at times — it’€™s really going to open up the floor and give us some space.”

As effective as Pierce was last season, carrying the Celtics at times, he showed signs of mortality. The foot. The entire month of February (39.5 FG%, 29.2 3P%). The knee. Now, for perhaps the first time in his career, Pierce finds himself as the team’s only core player in a contract year. Garnett, Rondo, Green, Bass, Lee, Terry and Sullinger are all signed through 2015. Even Bradley doesn’t have a qualifying offer for another two seasons.

Still, Pierce has little left to prove. In his mid-30s, he’s enjoyed his most efficient seasons. (His true shooting numbers of 61.3 and 62.0 in 2009-10 and 2011-12 were the two highest percentages of his career.) He’s eclipsed Larry Bird on the C’s all-time scoring list and could surpass John Havlicek in another three or four seasons to make what Tommy Heinsohn already knows official: Pierce is the greatest scorer in Celtics history.

“I want to stay injury free, I want to be consistent in everything I do and hopefully try to win another championship,” said Pierce. “That’€™s pretty much the goal. I really don’€™t have any individual goals outside of just staying healthy, but as far as earning something, it’€™s going to be a championship. That’€™s my goal for the rest of my career.”

In the meantime, while his teammates steal the headlines he once monopolized, Pierce can just play basketball. Quietly, he averaged a team-high 15.0 points on 63.3 percent true shooting in just 24.4 minutes this preseason.

“I really love the game,” said the Celtics captain. “At the end of the day, I’€™ve been playing the game for more than half my life. I just love being out there. I love the competitiveness. I love the team camaraderie. It’€™s something I wake up and look forward to each and every day. I don’€™t know, when I don’€™t have that anymore, what’€™s going to be next. I haven’€™t really thought about it, but that part of me is just something that I just love — every morning, to wake up, to know I’€™m going to be around my teammates, I’€™m going to practice, I’€™m going to enjoy the camaraderie, experience and teamwork, everything that comes with being a basketball player.”

No more soul searching. No more jersey-swinging ejections. No more head-wrapped press conferences. No more building and rebuilding. No more expectations. Just Celtics basketball. And that’s the way Pierce likes it.

“I think you’€™ve got to have it in you,” said Pierce. “I think you have to have a certain competitiveness in you. A lot of guys who have been so talented throughout the years have fallen off, and I think they probably lose love for the game as they get older, as their talent diminishes. You’€™ve really got to love the sport to be good for a long time. You’€™ve got to get the work in in the summer. Just period: It has to be in you. And you see the guys that it’€™s not in them. They don’€™t do the things that they did that made them the best players. They stopped doing those things.”

Yup, Paul Pierce, just doing his thing.

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

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