Paul Pierce had a party the night of the NBA lottery last May. When the Ping-Pong balls had finished bouncing, his Boston Celtics didn't get the first pick, as most everyone in Beantown had hoped. Nor the second pick. Nor the third. Nor the fourth. The Celtics were doomed to the fifth pick overall.

But even though Pierce left the party early, it wasn't because he was upset. He was actually delighted.

"I knew it was a pick we would probably have to trade," Pierce said last week.

Nothing against Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, but Pierce was tired of rebuilding projects, tired of giving advice on how to work out and what to wear and how to eat to young ballers still wet behind the ears. Tired of 50-loss seasons and tired of being an afterthought when it came to the premier players in the game.

But Pierce concedes he had no idea it would work out like this for the Celtics, who blew through town last week, a lot more than a workmanlike victory over the desultory 76ers on their plate.

Boston, again, is on the map, a championship contender. With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the fold after Boston started the process in motion by taking that fifth pick overall and moving it to Seattle in a package for Allen, the Celtics have the best record in the Eastern Conference. They are playing the best defense in the league. The TD Banknorth Garden is full again.

The scary thing for the rest of the league? No one in green believes the Celtics have even scratched the surface of their potential.

"I think we're still figuring it out," Allen said of his 16-2 team. "We always talk about 20 games, you're still figuring out who you are, what your identity is going to be. We're still figuring it out."

Indeed. The Celtics may be too unselfish right now. The ball moves - Boston had 400 assists on its first 619 baskets this season - but Pierce and Allen know they've passed up open looks that they would have gladly taken in the past - and will probably have to take in order to advance in the playoffs.

But coach Doc Rivers wants to make sure that this group - none of whom has been past the conference finals, despite all their All-Star Game appearances and individual honors - understands the significance of taking most of the regular season to build the continuity necessary to succeed in the postseason.

"Doc keeps saying, 'Don't get bored with the process,' " said guard Eddie House, who has bolstered Boston's bench along with veteran James Posey.

The process began in September, when Garnett, Pierce and Allen decided to come east early - "I can't remember the last time I was back in Boston the first week of September," Pierce said - to get three weeks of early work in before the start of training camp.

The bond was further enhanced when the Celtics had camp in Italy, and the New Three (they hate being called the "Big Three," the moniker for the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish trio that led Boston to its last three championships, in the 1980s) had to spend even more time together between photo shoots and team dinners.

But Boston hit the ground running on opening night and hasn't looked back - so far.

You may have forgotten how good Garnett is the last couple of seasons, when he was marooned on those terrible Minnesota teams.

With Garnett in the post, Pierce finds himself open off of cuts for the first time since his rookie season, "before they started knowing who I was," he said. The same thing happens when Pierce drives the ball on Allen's side, because defenders can't leave a career 39.6 percent three-point shooter.

Garnett has also anchored Boston's halfcourt defense. His length helps center Kendrick Perkins stay out of foul trouble down low, and his helpside intelligence lets point guard Rajon Rondo be much more aggressive out front, leading to more turnovers and fast-break opportunities.

"The thing I appreciated about Kevin was he was very willing to stay in Minnesota," Rivers said, "because he wanted to finish that part. He didn't want the people in Minnesota to think he was bailing out on them, and they were trying to trade

him."

And other than occasionally yelling at rookies like Glen Davis to stop yammering in the locker room and get ready to play the game, Pierce is no longer Big Brother. He's in a room full of grownups.

"It's time to really live up to the [team] mascot and get lucky," Pierce said. "And we got lucky."