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Paul Pierce Keeps Working His Way Back

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Paul Pierce has been more than susceptible to the nagging injury bug that's sure to haunt a handful of NBA players every season. His various injuries have not been of the serious brand, but they've certainly been inhibiting enough to have had significant effects on the second half of his season.

Kevin Garnett hyperextended his right knee against the Los Angeles Clippers back on December 27, only to have the same knee kicked against the Golden State Warriors the following night. Garnett went on to miss nearly a month of basketball. He returned on January 22 against the Portland Trailblazers, but it wasn't until February 18 against the Los Angeles Lakers - nearly a month later - that KG started to look "healthy" once again. 

Are Garnett and Pierce's injuries different? Certainly. Apples and oranges? Perhaps. The injuries themselves might be independent of one another, but the allotted rehab time generally isn't. In the NBA, it takes time to work one's way back from an injury, and that process is made even more difficult when one nagging injury leapfrogs another one and derails the process even further. Such was the case with Pierce, who suffered a strained left foot against the Washington Wizards on February 1, used the All-Star break to get healthy, and promptly suffered a sprained right thumb two games in once the schedule resumed. Ironically, the sprain occurred against the Lakers, so we basically lost Pierce just as we were getting Garnett back. Figures. 

The foot and thumb injuries also came on the heels of both an infected right knee that kept him out of the December west coast swing, and also a bruised left knee that he suffered back on November 13 against the Atlanta Hawks (forgot about that one, didn't you?). All the while, these injuries only added to the natural wear and tear that a player is subjected to over the course of an overbearing 82-game NBA regular season schedule. Even if Pierce were "healthy" (meaning he hadn't missed any games this season due to injury), he'd more than likely still be battling the traditional bumps and bruises and aches and pains that are a standard part of the regular season package. 

Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Ray Allen have each only missed one game this season due to injury, yet would you be surprised at all if today Doc Rivers came out and revealed each was battling minor maladies of their own? Probably not. The bumps and bruises generally aren't severe enough for guys to miss action, but when you tack on the bumps and bruises to knee injuries, foot injuries, and nagging thumb injuries, they're enough to take a toll, to the point where the player looks physically limited when he suits up and tries to play in games. 

Has Pierce looked un-Truthlike in games since his return? Most definitely. I could point to the Detroit game on March 2,  (his first game back following the thumb injury), the Philadelphia game on March 7, and the Cleveland game this past Sunday. But when looking for games when Pierce has looked quite capable in terms of physical assertiveness on the court, I could just as easily point to the March 3rd game against Charlotte, the March 12th game against the Pacers (he finished off two fast break alley-oop lobs from Rondo in this one. The first was an alley-oop layup with 8:00 left in the first quarter, and the second was a throw down off a lob pass from Rondo with 1:49 left in the second. He looked quite athletic on both plays.), and Monday night against the Pistons, particularly in the first half. 

Monday night 12 of Pierce's 15 points came in the first quarter, on a steady array of aggressive drives to the basket against the helpless Jonas Jerebko. Clearly there's going to be a noticeable difference when Pierce drives on the likes of Jerebko, compared to the likes of, say, LeBron James. James is one the few players Pierce can't assert his underrated strength against when he goes to the rim, for LeBron's both quick enough and strong enough to hang with Pierce step for step. But there's a concrete difference between being physically incapable and physically outmatched. On Sunday against the Cavs, Pierce was physically outmatched against LeBron. But then again, who isn't these days?

Pierce might be 32 going on 33 later this year, but 32 is far too young, even by NBA standards, for a player of Pierce's caliber to simply lose his physical capabilities over the course of the second half of a single season. Particularly when, through the first two months of the season, Pierce seemed to be dunking more than he had his entire career, meaning he was arguably stronger and lighter than in years past. And it was noticeable. We were talking about it on this very blog. Remember Pierce posterizing Chris Bosh on November 27? I do. I was there. And if that night you told me that Pierce would suddenly "lose his athleticism" a month later, I would have uttered the heartiest of chuckles. And, to an extent, those chuckles are still warranted. Paul Pierce is not "over the hill". He might be on the back nine of his career, but he's still only on hole 10. If he were 35, 36, or 37 and we were having this discussion, then yes, one could certainly make a case that the explosive days of Paul Pierce were well behind him. But not at 32. Not yet, given his superior physical condition at the start of the season, the fact that he's still just coming out of the prime of his career, the fact that none of the injuries he suffered were either season or career threatening, and the fact that he's not even sniffing 1,000 games played yet.

If we're going to allow Garnett over a month (he had the benefit of the All-Star break mid-February) to heal up and get back into playing shape, then Pierce deserves a similar treatment. The impatience is understandable, for Pierce's Ironman status has been a claim to fame of sorts for him, with the stress reaction in his left foot during the '06 - '07 campaign serving as the lone exception. The impatience is also understandable, given the Celtics' recent struggles, and the weight of the team's expectations falling largely on his shoulders. When the going gets tough, we expect Paul Pierce to get going. He's the one player, ahead of everyone else on this roster, that's capable of initiating his own offense (when healthy), throwing his mates on his back, and carrying them to the promised land. It's both hoped for and expected, so when the Wizards fight for much longer than anticipated, or the Grizzlies flex their young muscles early on, or the Cavs embark on their typical second half run, we look to Pierce to be the one to take a stand and say, 'Enough'. 

Unfortunately, given his recovering physical condition in the aftermath of the injuries, he's been unable to fill that role consistently, which has given the critics something to feast upon. It's been an up and down battle thus far, and the Celtics should be open, as they've said they will be, to the possibility of Pierce, along with Garnett and possibly others, sitting out a game or two down the stretch to sure up their fatigued bodies. With Pierce working his way back to peak physical condition, such games could do the Captain wonders. Monday night was an admirable blend of impressive play (he looked like the Pierce of old on that hanging fadeaway jumper with 8:05 left in the third), and flat out rest, as the uneven score allowed for him to rest up for much of the second half. He played just 18 minutes, but accomplished a whole lot during that time. He did leave the game just before halftime to receive treatment on some undisclosed back problem. However, all reports today point to it being nothing serious. Add it to the list of the bumps and bruises of the NBA season.

Pierce's revival might be taking longer than some would like, but the process is undoubtedly a process, and one that cannot afford to be rushed. The Celtics need him at full strength come playoff time, and given there are only 16 games remaining, a clean bill of health is about all Pierce can hope to obtain before the real season gets under way.