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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Present is tense with them

No matter how hard we try, when we talk about the Celtics, it's always about the past.

The first-place Indiana Pacers came to town last night and methodically beat the stand-around Celtics, 103-90. The Celtics led by as many as 15 in the first half but trailed by 19 in the fourth quarter.

The Pacers have a lot of people who inspire memories of Boston basketball's good old days when the Garden was the place to be seen, when championships were won, and when nobody called the cops if Red lit a cigar in the big, drafty gym.

The Pacers are coached by Rick Carlisle, who was drafted by the Celtics in 1984 and played for Boston's last championship team in '86. The Pacers have a president of basketball operations named Larry Bird. The Pacers have a veteran shooting guard named Reggie Miller (18 points last night) who used to get into gunslinging battles with Bird. The Pacers have a TV guy named Quinn Buckner who won a ring here in 1984.

Oh, and the Pacers also have a veteran guard named Kenny Anderson, who was point man on the Celtics' Eastern Conference finalists just a little more than a year and a half ago.

In the cold, dry, colorless Celtic winter of 2003-04, we speak of the golden days of 2002 as if they were part of the Bird-Parish-McHale era. The mere sight of Anderson practically kindles memories of Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey.

The Celtics of 2002 are all gone except for Paul Pierce, Walter McCarty, and Mark Blount. That's right. In the name of progress -- moving back so you can move forward -- the Celtics have been blown up since they came within two wins of making it to the NBA Finals.

Now a visitor, Anderson went across the hall to commiserate with Pierce before last night's game.

"Me and Paul were laughing about it," said Anderson. "Paul's upbeat and everything, but the players he came in with are all gone. That's the profession. You just never know in this league. We were a close-knit team, that bunch, but four or five guys can be gone real quick. New people come in and, you know, they're going to make changes.

"But are you crazy? I didn't think they had the [guts] to trade Antoine."

Celtic fans are adjusting to life without Antoine Walker. They're getting used to Jiri Welsch, Chris Mihm, and Ricky Davis. But many of them still long for the group that made it to the NBA's Final Four less than two years ago.

Carlisle's Detroit Pistons were the first playoff victims of that Celtic team.

"They kicked the crap out of us," said Carlisle. "They'd made great trades to get Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. That put them in position to get to the conference finals. But those of us who've been around the league, we've all seen it. A team's vision can change. There are financial considerations."

Celtics coach Jim O'Brien has said that he'd have taken his chances moving forward with that old group, but we all know what happened. Rogers left when Thanksdad wouldn't fork over the dough, then Anderson was swapped for Vin Baker, Paul Gaston sold the team, Danny Ainge was hired, and the green team was completely overhauled. They don't even wear the ugly old black sneakers anymore. Cheerleaders can't be far behind.

Like most of the old school advocates, Anderson, who did not play last night because of a leg injury, has no doubt that the Celtics would be among the elite of the East if the 2002 team had remained intact.

"Oh yeah," he said. "With all the things we went through together, we definitely would be in there probably with Indiana, New Orleans, and New Jersey."

But they are not. They are a sub-.500 team treading water in the great middle of the NBA's deep sea of mediocrity. They are a unit too dependent on one scorer, too often willing to stand and watch Pierce perform. The second-half rebounding last night was pathetic (Indiana had a 12-2 edge on the offensive glass after intermission and took 20 more shots than the Celtics). Players are still getting to know one another, and O'Brien is figuring out a way to integrate Davis into the program.

Say this about Davis: The game is infinitely more fun when he is on the floor. Think Ray-Ray Williams. Think Micheal Ray Richardson. Think Rickey Henderson if you have to. The young man is fun to watch. His best moment last night came midway through the second quarter after the whistle blew. Ignoring the zebra, Ricky continued to the basket from the left baseline, went in the air, twirled the ball under his leg, then came up with a windmill dunk with his right hand. Don't think I ever saw Larry do that.

The Celtics were in control in the first half. Welsch made all five of his shots and Davis got fans out of their seats. There were times when it appeared Ainge might know what he's doing after all.

Like it or not, living in the present is the only way to go. Antoine Walker is not walking through that door, folks. Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kenny Anderson are not walking through that door.

No more talk of missing persons. No more talking about 2002 like it was a banner year. These are your Boston Celtics. Get used to nights like last night.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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