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Celtics Still Ahead Of the Curve in East

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Monday, February 25, 2008; Page E01

PHOENIX -- The Boston Celtics started this basketball makeover craze. Back at the end of July, before the Lakers had any thought of trading for Pau Gasol or the Phoenix Suns had any inkling Shaq might become The Big Cactus, Danny Ainge remade and as a result reenergized the Celtics. Even as they've struggled now through their first three-game losing streak of the season out west, the overall numbers make it fairly easy to argue that the biggest trade in the season of swap took place not in February to beat the deadline, but back in the summer when Ainge pulled off huge deals for Ray Allen and then Kevin Garnett that enabled the Celtics to run off to the best record in the NBA.

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The current trip that took the Celtics west plopped them in the desert for the third week of the ongoing love fest between Phoenix and Shaquille O'Neal, and it was impossible for Ainge, the Celtics director of basketball operations and general manager, not to feel a twinge of jealousy . . . momentarily. "The Suns, the Lakers . . . they both have this newness, a freshness," Ainge said during a conversation when the Celtics visited the Suns. "But we had that at the start of the season. It can wear off or it can stay. . . . Gasol does it for you. Shaq does it for you. I actually thought [before the trade deadline] about the jolt you can get from it . . . but we actually get that jolt now from guys like Leon Powe and Big Baby. They give that to us now because they've evolved to the point where they can give us so much, because they want to play for the older guys, play for Kevin . . . "

Powe, a second-year reserve forward, and rookie behemoth Glen "Big Baby" Davis are two of the players Ainge and Coach Doc Rivers are counting on to supplement Boston's "Big Three" of Garnett, Allen and rejuvenated holdover Paul Pierce as the Celtics try and get back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1987. The Celtics' turnaround is as radical as is possible from one season to the next. Last year the Celtics were on their way to the draft lottery, the second-worst record in franchise history (24-58) and nightly humiliation.

Rivers, a contemporary whom Ainge battled on the court, took the job expecting a difficult climb but not this steep. "Danny and I have been around for a long time," Rivers said. "We knew it would be severe . . . but I didn't know it would be that severe. . . . I thought there might be pain to it, but not that kind of pain. [Last year] I knew I could lose my job. I knew Danny could lose his job. . . . If you win you're good. If you lose you're not. It's always been that way."

But then Ainge changed not just his personal situation but the immediate future of the Celtics and very possibly the landscape of the NBA. On draft night he traded Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the pick that would become Jeff Green to Seattle for Allen, the smooth-shooting, exceptionally popular all star.

Eyes opened. But it would be nothing like the reaction that accompanied the July 31 trade Ainge made, sending five young players (with big Al Jefferson being the most promising) and two first-round draft picks to Minnesota for Garnett.

KG is a strangely great player by NBA standards. He's fabulous as an ensemble player but not the guy who can carry an okay team deep into the playoffs. Thirteen seasons and nearly 1,000 games played is a lot of mileage, even if KG has yet to turn 32. Ainge, starting his fifth season, decided to go for it now. If anything, teams around the league spent November, December and January watching the "jolt" the Celtics got from having KG and Allen.

"Teams are trying to win," Rivers said. "Teams are going for it and if you're the league, isn't that what you really want?"

The Celtics are far from a lock to win the Eastern Conference. Detroit, again, is menacing. LeBron James has gotten what he feels will be a positive bounce from the jolt of Cleveland's massive deadline-beating acquisition of new running mates Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Szczerbiak and West. But the Celtics don't have to work in any new parts. They're well on their way to locking up one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. Most surprising is that their defense ranks 1, 2 or 3 in all six important categories, including field goal percentage and points allowed per game. That defense was the primary reason the Celtics were 7-2 in nine games that Garnett was injured.

But the team is under no delusions that it can keep that up without Garnett, who returned to the lineup after the all-star break. Ainge says he's most thrilled about seeing smiles on the faces of Rivers and Pierce, who endured last year's losing. But Ainge adds that one of the things that "sustains the team is Kevin's passion and energy. He generally cares about his teammates and they know that. They're really playing for him. He'll get on 'em . . . tell 'em things coaches tell 'em but it means more coming from him. Kevin holds them accountable. He sets the standard. There's no hypocrisy in him. He works hard, rehabs hard, plays hard . . . all of it. Everything he does he does the right way."

It's a good thing because Garnett has plenty to prove. Though he enjoys the status of an elite player, Garnett has only once led a team out of the first round of the playoffs. A bigger deal is his Timberwolves didn't even make the playoffs three consecutive seasons. In Boston, Garnett has more the ensemble cast, with Allen and Pierce being to this team what Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were to the 2004 Minnesota team that advanced to the Western Conference finals.

For now, the Celtics will have to occupy themselves with holding off the Detroit Pistons, who have crept within two games of Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Like the Celtics, the Pistons came into the season with a roster they liked, one with a deeper bench and much more playoff experience though fewer megastars than the Celtics.

It's difficult to go wire-to-wire with the best record in the NBA, and it doesn't always pay off in the playoffs. But the Celtics wouldn't give back their blast into this renaissance season, nor would they fret now about all the rivals that are trying to do now what the Celtics did coming into the season.


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