WALTHAM, Mass. — In a normal year, this is the time when Paul Pierce would be preparing for the postseason grind. The NBA playoffs begin Saturday, and that time of year usually brings the most physically and mentally challenging stretch of the year.
This is no normal year, though. If anything, several Celtics players have been looking forward to putting this regular season, which crammed 66 games into a span normally reserved for around 55 games, behind them as they return to something resembling normal NBA life.
With less than a week to go before the Celtics open their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, Pierce even gave himself a figurative pat on the back for missing only five games this season.
"I feel great," Pierce said after the Celtics practiced Monday for the first time since April 3. "When I look back at the season, knowing there's two games left, knowing it's the last week of the season, all you can say is, you got through it."
The Celtics are assured of playing the Hawks in the first round, so they began implementing pieces of a game plan for Atlanta on Monday. Once the series begins, the teams will probably have at least one day between each game to prepare, although there is a chance of a back-to-back in some first-round series.
"You kind of get a rhythm now," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You get a real NBA feel with practice and rest and prep time. It'll be nice."
Pierce missed the first three games of the season with a bone bruise in his right heel. Since then, he has been available for every game except for two in which he received rest. He is expected to rest for at least one of Boston's two remaining games in the regular season.
In a season that has claimed the likes of Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, Derrick Rose, Al Horford, Eric Gordon and others for extended periods of time, Pierce was not complaining about missing a half-dozen contests.
"There were a lot of complaints about the schedule, a lot of complaints about the travel, the back-to-backs, the three games in a row," Pierce said. "I think I was able to hold up for the most part, other than the beginning of the year with an injury that happened before the season. I'm glad I was able to make it through this season knowing that a lot of guys around this league were injured — a lot of key players."
After the most intense regular season of his NBA career, Pierce made it out in one piece. The grind of the playoffs will seem like a cinch.