As he has done for most of the home games this season, Paul Pierce attended the prayer session before last night's game against the 76ers. The topic of the sermon: ''I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends." (We're not sure if it was the Beatles' version or Joe Cocker's.)
In so many ways, that phrase sums up the situation for the Celtics in general and Pierce in particular. Pierce, and his new best friend, Ryan Gomes, helped the Celtics beat Philadelphia, 104-101. They combined for 60 points and 23 rebounds and Pierce notched a triple-double for the first time this season (31-12-10) to continue his celestial play. As Sixers coach Mo Cheeks aptly put it, ''Paul was the difference, at least down the stretch."
The powers that be believe that if the day comes when Pierce can get a little help from a few more of his friends, the Celtics will be a pretty good team. Maybe even very good. ''It's our job to support him, increase the talent, so he can be on a better team and become a better player," said coach Doc Rivers. ''And the better we get, the better he is going to be."
It's pretty hard to imagine Pierce being better than he is right now. He is on a scoring tear unseen in the storied history of the Celtics' franchise, having now scored 30 or more points in 13 of the last 14 games. He led the league in points scored in February. He is the only player in the NBA to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
He is one of two players in the league to score 15 or more points in every game (Philadelphia's Allen Iverson is the other) and yet, Rivers says, ''it's not the points that I've been impressed with. He's a great scorer. He's a great scorer every night. It's the other things that he's done for this team that just keeps giving us hope that we know, at this level, and with the things we can add, that we can be a good basketball team in the near future."
That's because, in the precious present, the Celtics are not a very good basketball team. Despite all of Pierce's heroics, including his dramatic buzzer-beater Tuesday night in Washington and his 12-point fourth quarter last night, the Celtics are in 10th place in a weak conference. Pierce needs help all right. He needs Hoop 911, or else one of the greatest individual seasons in Celtics history will end on the final day of the regular season. That's not how it's supposed to be.
That is the double-edged sword in the whole Pierce saga this season -- he's playing the best basketball of his life for a team that, record-wise, might end up being the worst one he's ever played on. He says that does not bother him, although you think it has to be killing him. Danny Ainge says Pierce is as happy as he's been in the years that the two have been together.
''I'm just trying to be positive," Pierce said. ''I like the guys [I'm] around. Even though we're not at the record I'd like to be, even after a loss, guys are mad, but then we have fun and you move on. They look up to me. I've been around eight years. A lot of these guys were in junior high or high school when I came into the NBA. I see how much of an influence I am off the court. I try to be careful how I approach things on and off the court because I know these guys are watching."
Rivers certainly is. ''In the two years I've been around him, I think he's been as positive as ever. He's been amazing. He's been great in time outs. He has been fantastic."
He's been even better on the floor. Larry never had a stretch where he scored 30 or more points in 13 of 14 games. Hondo never did it. Cooz never did it. No Celtic has ever had such a scoring binge. But Larry, Hondo, and Cooz had friends, good friends, lots of friends, many of whom are in Springfield.
''It's a great individual accomplishment, but I'm not here for the individual accomplishments," Pierce said of his scoring spree. ''I'm trying to help my team win. That's what I'm all about. I don't go into every game trying to score 30 points. I'm just trying to win."
Pierce's recent scoring splurge has allowed the Celtics to start thinking seriously about possibly overtaking Chicago and Milwaukee and getting into the postseason. The team is 8-6 in the 14 games in which Pierce has gone for 30 or more. (They are 0-4 when he goes for 40 or more.) Pierce's play and his attitude have not gone unnoticed, whether it be in Boston or in higher hoop circles.
USA Basketball chieftain Jerry Colangelo extended an invitation to try out for the 2006 world championship team in Japan and the 2008 Olympic team in China. That would not have happened a year or two ago. In fact, it didn't. There were no calls to Pierce to join the 2004 Athens team, even after player after player dropped out. (You think he might have helped them in the 3-point department.) But while Colangelo did invite Pierce, he did not not invite Baron Davis, who, along with Pierce, were generally seen as the two most disruptive figures on the 2002 world championship team.
The world championships will likely be Pierce's challenge and reward at the end of this season. (He's no lock to make the Japan team, by the way.) The challenge beyond and in the years ahead is not exactly a news bulletin. The Celtics have to convince Pierce to stick around, albeit at a comfortable wage, and hope that some combination of the young pups develop into a more-than-serviceable ''supporting cast."
Pierce, more than anyone, needs a little help from his friends. It's hard to find someone any more deserving, but, as Celtics fans know too well, life in the NBA is anything but fair.