BOSTON -- For years Paul Pierce was looked to as the floor leader for the Celtics. In spite of being a forward -- not a point guard -- he was the veteran captain and one of the few players with proven experience on an otherwise young Celtics teams. In other years, he was the go-to guy on struggling squads.
It was not uncommon to see Pierce with the ball in his hand, managing the court and directing his teammates. He averaged a career-high 5.1 assists per game during the 2003-04 season in which the Celtics finished 36-46, and dished over four dimes per game for six straights seasons through the Celtics championship run in 2008.
That has changed since Rajon Rondo's emergence as one of the NBA's best passers and ball handlers (he leads the league with 12.8 assists per game). But Pierce still has it in him.
On Saturday Pierce picked up his 4,000th career assist while dishing a season-high nine helpers in the Celtics' win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Rondo led the game with 11.
"I thought my teammates did a good job of getting me the ball in the post area," Pierce said. "I recognized the double teams and I was able to find people, and that's how I got the majority of my assists tonight."
Now in this 15th season, 35-year-old Pierce still draws defenders and is a threat when left alone with an open shot. He is averaging a team-high 19.2 points this season and remains a threat in clutch situations. That alone opens up opportunities for him to stifle his opponents and find his teammates for a shot.
Pierce is posting 3.6 dimes per game this season, down from 4.5 last season, but he has that ability to get his teammates going on any given night. His keen recognition of the open man enhances the Celtics' ball distribution, giving them another strong option in addition to Rondo.
"It's a mixture of both," Rondo said of Pierce's assists. "Paul making the right play and guys finishing for him and making shots. He got trapped, he invited a double team, and he played unselfishly and moved the ball and guys made shots for us."
Pierce's career high is 14 assists again the Orlando Magic last season on April 18. He currently ranks 17th among all active players with 4,006 assists.