by: Paul Flannery on Wed, 02/08/2012 - 1:38am

Paul Pierce acknowledges the Garden crowd after passing Larry Bird for second place on the Celtics' all-time scoring list. (AP)The moment was finally here, and the folks who run the Garden in-game operations rose to the occasion. There was a video, of course, honoring Paul Pierce as he passed Larry Bird for second place on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list. There was a long, lusty ovation from the crowd that has watched Pierce grow up from a talented and temperamental individual to the steady and reliable rock of the franchise.

The video ended and the camera focused for a moment on the banner honoring the retired numbers. Just below the digits for DJ, McHale, Bird, Reggie Lewis, Parish and Maxwell there are two blank spaces. That’s where the camera lingered. That’s where Pierce will live forever one day.

“I actually saw little glimpses of it,” Pierce said with a sly grin. “Doc [Rivers] was talking in the timeout, you know, just try to focus in on the game and you just soak it in, soak it all in after the game. I’ll probably soak it all in a little bit more once I go home and try to realize what’s really going on.”

It’s tempting to make that moment into something bigger. To make it a sign that the Celtics won’t even consider trading the man who has stuck with them through everything. Really, who knows? The trade deadline is still a month away and team president Danny Ainge has never been one for sentimentality. But there’s no reason to do anything right now, not with the way Pierce has been playing and not with the way the Celtics have recovered from their dreadful start of the season when trade rumors were all the rage.

They won again on Tuesday, beating the depleted Bobcats, 94-84. That’s five in a row, their longest winning streak of the season. They’ve won nine of their last 10, and Pierce is the biggest reason for the surge.

It wasn’t a classic performance by any means. The Bobcats are the worst team in the league and the Celtics didn’t pull away until late in the contest, but it was quintessential Celtics in one respect: Five players scored in double figures and they had assists on 31 of their 41 baskets. Pierce didn’t shoot well -- just 6-for-18 -- but he racked up nine assists and eight rebounds to go with his 15 points, and it’s those other numbers that have defined his game this season.  

Pierce is averaging 5.5 assists per game, the highest mark of his career. It’s yet another late-career reinvention for Pierce, who has morphed from an offensive solo act to a team-oriented efficiency machine these last 4 1/2 years. His legacy may be defined by his offensive output, but it’s his willingness to adjust that has made his career.

“You know, here’s the part I wish people wrote about Paul,” Rivers said. “Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad. And instead of moaning that he wanted to go to a championship team, he stayed. And he said, ‘I simply want to be a Celtic and I trust that we’re going to win a title someday.’ He had no reason to believe that at the time. I mean, we were pretty awful. And to me, I wish people talked about his loyalty more, because I think that’s pretty special, especially in this day and age when everybody’s jumping from team to team.

“And that’s their right, I don’t begrudge that with anybody,” Rivers continued. “But I do think it’s special that Paul Pierce decided he wanted to be a Celtic for his life.”

Kevin Garnett changed the culture. Ray Allen came to Boston so fully formed, it’s a wonder he ever played anywhere else. Rajon Rondo emerged from his own peculiar universe to take his rightful place in this constellation of stars. But it was Pierce who made it happen because he not only accepted the change, he embraced it fully.

That’s his true defining characteristic. When the help finally arrived, Pierce was able to show the world that he was really a team player at heart. 

Pierce praised the fans for sticking with him all these years. He praised Bird, calling him, "One of the top five players that ever played the game. I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm anywhere near his accomplishments, but just to be mentioned with him, with this organization, is a great honor." 

Way off in the distance, John Havlicek still holds the all-time scoring mark, 4,598 points away from Pierce. It would take him another three years at least to pass Hondo, but Pierce isn’t worried about that.

"I think the fans will really appreciate another championship more than me passing Hondo,” he said. “So, you know, that's my ultimate goal."

It’s a wonderful debate to rank Pierce among the all-time greats. There’s Bill Russell, of course, sitting proudly at the head of the table with Bird on his right and Havlicek on his left. Flanking them are Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, McHale and Pierce in some order, and that’s before we even get to players like Dave Cowens, JoJo White, Parish and Tommy Heinsohn.

However you want to list them, you have to make room for Pierce, the kid from Inglewood of all places, who stuck it out.