You can’t fake an infection, can you?

No one who decides to take a sick day on a whim ever calls the boss and tells them they have an infection and can’t come in today. It’s always a cold or 24-hour flu or food poisoning, embellished with a little fake, feeble cough, as if that proves you’re really sick.

But you can’t fake an infection, which is what had Paul Pierce in the hospital for a couple of days this past week. The Celtics have that much going for them in their effort to convince everyone outside of New England that they aren’t tanking this season.

It’s been hard watching the C’s struggle through this 17-game skid. Some might call it embarrassing, but the team has played as hard as it can throughout the stretch, so it would be unfair to label them an embarrassment. The players are obviously frustrated, and I doubt Doc Rivers has been getting much sleep lately. If the organization has decided to tank the season, it’s clear no one wearing green and white or sitting on their bench got the memo.

Pierce was back on the court Friday against New Jersey. If management was seriously engaged in tanking, they could have and would have held him back until next week’s All-Star break. It had already been about seven weeks since he was originally sidelined by a stress reaction in one of his feet, so what was another week?

Instead, a lot of Celtic fans, myself included, are now having a stress reaction of their own, worried that his return will mean enough wins to reduce Boston’s chances in the NBA draft lottery and their chances of drafting their first franchise player since Pierce himself fortuitously dropped to them with the No. 10 pick.

We are willing to endure a dismal season and the accusations of a tank job despite getting burned, and burned badly, in 1997. That was the year M.L. Carr took a ship that was already sinking and drilled a few extra holes into the hull in hopes of increasing Boston’s chances of winning the draft lottery and its prize, Wake Forest man-child Tim Duncan. Carr did his job. The Celts won 15 games and had the most ping-pong balls in the lottery. The Celtics had not one, but two, picks in that lottery. Duncan was as good as ours, and Rick Pitino gave up his status as King of Kentucky to join the Celtics with visions of him and Duncan raising several more championship banners to the rafters.

One of Pitino’s first acts as Celtic coach and president was to send Carr to the lottery at league headquarters during the 1997 playoffs. Why he sent the symbol of Celtic futility rather than, say, Red Auerbach to oversee the turning point in the franchise’s history remains a mystery to this day.

In fact, the whole 1997 lottery remains shrouded in a mysterious haze for many shell-shocked Celtic fans. By my recollection, NBA commissioner David Stern introduced each of the team representatives that day, and when he got to the Celtics, M.L. flashed a grin and did that cheesy double-point thing that Isaac did at the beginning of every Love Boat episode. Well, that’s probably not what happened, but that’s the way I choose to remember it.

Then Stern opened the envelopes with the team logos inside and up popped Lucky the Leprechaun at No. 6 and No. 3. M.L.’s expression went from Ted Lange on the Love Boat to Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic in .05 seconds, and the rest is history.

So obviously, there are no guarantees. But Oden and Durant are the closest to sure things that the Celtics have had a chance to get your hands on in a long time. Honestly, when was the last time they were able to sign a major free agent or trade for one?

If you listen to Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn, it’s only a matter of time before the quintet of Rondo, West, Green, Gomes and Jefferson makes everyone forget about D.J., Ainge, Bird, McHale and the Chief. They’ve all got bright futures ahead of them, no doubt. Green and Jefferson may even play in a few All-Star games. But none of them is the dominating presence in the paint that this team so desperately needs and that Oden will provide. And none of them has the potential to be as unguardable as Durant already is, let alone is going to be.

Best case scenario without Oden or Durant, the Celtics are probably looking at 10 more years of mediocrity. With one of those guys, there’s a very good chance they rise out of that mediocrity in the next three or four years and become a perennial contender. Heck, it’s been 20 years since the Celtics were serious contenders. We can take a couple of more months of losing for some hope, can’t we? Just keep M.L. as far away as from the lottery as possible, please.

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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