Despite Pierce’s best season, Celts falter

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BOSTON (AP) – Paul Pierce had the best season of his career and the Boston Celtics still had their worst record in seven years.

The season did end on an upbeat note Wednesday night when the Celtics beat the Miami Heat, who were playing without Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. Still, with a 33-49 record, Boston missed the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Pierce averaged a career-high 26.8 points per game and avoided any malaise he felt in past years about being the one star on a rebuilding team. He also smoothed out his relationship with second-year coach Doc Rivers.

“He did a lot, not only for me, but for this team, for the young players. He did a phenomenal job,” said Pierce, who is expected to talk with the team about extending his contract, which has two years left, the second as a player option.

Pierce got help with the scoring load when Boston obtained guard Wally Szczerbiak from Minnesota on Jan. 26, although Szczerbiak missed the final seven games after having surgery on his left knee.

But they were surrounded by too many young players who were still developing their games for the Celtics to make a serious run at a playoff berth.

The Celtics have four rookies, three second-year players and one third-year pro who was drafted out of high school. So Rivers had plenty of teaching to do.

He confirmed he would return next season even though his family still lives in Florida and he had to deal with “family issues” this season.

Rivers led Boston to a 45-37 record with a more veteran team in his first season in 2004-05, but the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

The Celtics still have a lot to learn about playing team defense and producing in the transition game. They can use another veteran leader, preferably a true point guard to run the offense and distribute the ball. But some of the youngsters had productive seasons.

In his second year, Delonte West started at point guard and was third on the team in scoring with a 11.8-point average. But he dished out just 4.6 assists per game.

Rookie forward Ryan Gomes, a second-round pick, started 32 games after playing sparingly off the bench and was impressive at times, finishing with 7.9 points per game. He led Boston with 19 points in the season finale.

“For us young players, we’ll think about this game next year,” said Gomes, who played four seasons at Providence College. “Even though some of these games (late in the season) were meaningless to the other teams we played, it was good for us to be on the floor, getting experience.”

Gerald Green, a very athletic 20-year-old rookie guard taken with the 18th pick, got more playing time late in the season and hit 49 percent of his shots. But, like many of his teammates, he still has strides to make before becoming a complete player.

The Celtics struggled for rebounds, especially with second-year forward Al Jefferson sidelined for much of the season with an ankle injury after playing surprisingly well as a rookie out of high school. His 6-foot-10, 265-pound presence was missed, and the 6-foot-6 Pierce led the team with just 6.7 rebounds a game.

Before beating Miami, the Celtics had lost five straight games, but only one by more than five points.

“The way the season started is the way it ended,” Gomes said. “Turning the ball over made us lose a lot of one-point games.”

AP-ES-04-20-06 1137EDT

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