By A. Sherrod Blakely
WALTHAM The NBA announced on Monday that Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard was once again the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award winner.
There were two Boston Celtics who finished among the top-five vote-getters for the award.
Paul Pierce wasn't one of them. (They were Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.)
But if the Celtics are to get past the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, chances are Pierce's defense on Carmelo Anthony will be a major factor.
Pierce, a prolific scorer in his own right, is essentially defending a bigger, stronger, younger version of himself in Anthony.
Boston escaped Game 1 with an 87-85 win, with some of the credit going to Pierce and the way he limited Anthony to 15 points -- about 10 points below his season average -- on 5-for-18 shooting from the field.
"A great player like Carmelo, you can't count on him shooting the ball the way he did Sunday night," said Pierce, who added, "We hope that he shoots like that again."
If Anthony does, chances are Pierce's defense will have something to do with it.
There's no doubt that Pierce's defense has picked up in recent years, by no means should it be confused with Bruce Bowen or any other highly regarded defensive player known for locking down players.
For Pierce, he uses his size, deceptively quick lateral movements and just plain ol' veteran savvy, to get the job done defensively.
But in this series, as important as it is to limit Anthony's effectiveness, the Celtics will need more than defensive stops from Pierce.
"For me, I have to be great on both sides of the ball," Pierce said. "That's the way I'm looking at this series. I have to be the scorer that the Celtics need me to be, and I have to be a defender. Because I'm guarding one of the premier players in the game. It's a lot of responsibility, but it's a responsibility I've been used to."
Rivers recalls how so much of the burden of carrying the team, fell on Pierce's shoulders during his early years.
"Early on, he had to do more than just score and defend," Rivers said. "He had to be the passer, he had to be the rebounder. My first two, three years with Paul, that was difficult. It is hard being the only guy. Everybody's double teaming you, but now he has other guys so that allows him to rest more."
Rivers sees Pierce's improved play defensively as another sign of his growth into an elite, all-around NBA superstar.
"You have to do them both," Rivers said. "It's part of basketball. It's offense and defense. It's not just one."
In Boston's Game 1 win, Pierce showed the ability to achieve success on both fronts in the game's closing moments.
Trailing 85-84 with about a minute to play, Pierce's defense on Anthony led to Anthony being whistled for an offensive foul with less than a minute to play.
Boston's Ray Allen nailed the game-winning shot with less than 12 seconds to play.
The pass to Allen for the game-winning shot came from Pierce.
"Ray's the hero with the shot; to me Paul's the hero with the pass," Rivers said moments after Sunday's Game 1 victory. "That's a great example of not playing hero basketball; just trusting what we drew up."
Pierce embraces the balancing act he has to perform for one reason -- he doesn't have a choice if the Celtics are going to have the kind of postseason they collectively envision.
"I have to be just as aggressive offensively, and I have to be even more aggressive defensively," Pierce said. "It's not going to be easy. Doc's always saying, 'winning isn't easy.' So that's what it is."