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Revised plan is to be spoilsports

WALTHAM -- With 25 games remaining in the season, the Celtics have nothing to play for other than ping-pong balls, but that's not something coach Doc Rivers will attempt to sell his young team. Instead, he's motivating the players by focusing on improvement in practice and challenging them to play the role of spoiler.

"We're spending our practices now on individual drills, on trying to make each guy better," Rivers said yesterday. "We're turning the practices into teaching sessions, and then we're trying to turn their minds on. Young teams, it's just hard for them to see ahead and think ahead and prepare their minds for games.

"Right now, we're not going to the playoffs. What are we playing for? We're playing to get better. We're playing for pride, obviously. We're also playing to ruin other teams' seasons. If ours is bad, well, let's bring some other people down with us."

Boston, winner of two straight, will try to heed that message today against New Jersey. The Nets are a game ahead of Orlando for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, it's easier for the Celtics to play spoiler now that Paul Pierce is back. After going 2-22 without its captain, Boston is 3-6 with him in the lineup. Pierce said the team's modest winning streak shows the potential it had before the season was submarined by injuries.

"What I'm able to do is instill the confidence in those guys," said Pierce. "It's like when the captain goes down on the ship, who is there to steer the boat? The rest of the sailors are used to playing their roles, but that's not their job. Now I'm back and those guys have gained a lot of confidence in themselves -- not that they didn't have it before -- but they know what it means to have me on the court to help them out."

He's got legs
Rivers has maintained he doesn't think Pierce will be 100 percent this season. However, Pierce said it could happen within a week. He logged 42 minutes in Wednesday's victory over the Knicks -- the most playing time he's seen since returning from the stress reaction in his left foot.

"I felt pretty good playing those minutes, where it was kind of like a struggle the whole West Coast trip," said Pierce. "I felt like the game was going too fast for me, but I think I'm starting to pick it up and get my legs under me with the extra running I'm getting."

Painful lesson
Despite a bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, Kendrick Perkins likely won't be shut down before the end of the season. Rivers said Perkins can't do more damage by playing, and he thought it was good for Perkins to learn to play with an injury.

"Most young guys haven't been injured, and when they are, they never play, and when they play, they usually don't play, they're just out there," said Rivers. "I think Perk is learning how to play with an injury and how to still be effective. That's a great lesson for him."

Rivers said Perkins will take one to two months off this summer.

Jefferson fan
Pierce continued his praise of Al Jefferson, who has averaged 18.3 points and 13.2 rebounds in six games since the All-Star break. "The guy is just playing with tremendous confidence. He feels like he belongs," said Pierce. " He's playing through mistakes, and that's something he wasn't doing early in his career." . . . The last time the Celtics played at New Jersey, Dec. 9, they enjoyed what Rivers called their best win of the season. Boston rallied from an abysmal start -- the Nets ran out to a 22-2 lead -- to take home a 92-90 win on a Pierce jumper at the buzzer . . . The Celtics haven't won three straight since they had a five-game winning streak in December. That run started with the win at New Jersey.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at