When Paul Pierce was baby-sitting the Celtics through the misery of last season, he wasn’t happy. But for the most part, he kept his whining out of media range. He scored his 25 a night and went home pining for better days but never ripped his owner or demanded a trade. There was the night when he moseyed up to Kevin Garnett and asked, “Am I going to have to come to Minnesota, or are you coming to Boston?” but that mostly was to lighten the mood of a nothing game between two teams going nowhere.

Now that the Celtics are going somewhere in a hurry, Pierce is smiling like a rookie cashing his first paycheck. And as I watched him entertain reporters before another recent victory, I felt good for him. Here was a superstar who didn’t act like a spoiled brat and – score one for karma – now finds himself in a better place.

A much better place. Instead of being the best player on a 24-win team of unproven youngsters and declining veterans, Pierce has become part of the league’s latest and greatest Big Three. Garnett and Ray Allen have joined Pierce in Boston to bring back the glory days. An 8-0 start made the Celtics the early-season favorites to run away with the East and, just as significant, turned TD Banknorth Garden into a place to be. Logical thinking was that the Celtics would need time to come together, but the next glitch will be their first.

Coach Doc Rivers has his reason for the hot start: “Defensive energy,” he says. “K.G. has been huge. I’m blown away by the energy he plays with. You can’t get him out of a practice, ever. He really forces your hand to have shorter practices because you don’t want him out there too long.” Pierce has his: “Complete unselfishness.” Since choosing sides on the first day of preseason pickup games, the team has made sure the starters have played together and that point guard Rajon Rondo and center Kendrick Perkins have not become the forgotten two.

But Pacers president Donnie Walsh has the best: “Three great players who want to win usually make it easier.”

Especially three great players who complement one another’s games. Allen is the shooter, Garnett the superstar garbage man, and Pierce, simply, is the scorer. Entering this year, Pierce had averaged more than 25 points in five of the previous seven seasons, thanks in part to an ability to reach the free throw line more than eight times a game.

“He’s more athletic than you think, he’s stronger than you think, and he’s bigger than you think,” Walsh says. “I was watching him against us, and he drove left and scored, he drove right and scored and he hit a jump shot to score. I know from all the times he beat us in the playoffs, he’s pretty much unstoppable.”

And now-in a payoff for perseverance-so is his team.


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