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BOB RYAN

They've been a real turnoff

0.5

I'm no fan of television ratings, especially when it comes to sporting events. I know -- not guess, know -- that numerous sporting events are undercounted because, far more often than regular programming, sporting events are often viewed in the company of others. Ratings do not take into account private homes where clusters of people gather to watch certain events in a party-like atmosphere, nor do they take into consideration bars where big games are watched in great numbers. The current ratings procedure is a hopelessly inadequate way to evaluate the viewing habits of American sports fans.

But 0.5 is something else entirely. When a sporting event has a 0.5 rating, it indicates a state of ennui that should alarm anyone making a livelihood from that team, or league. If that rating pertains to a playoff game, the situation is exponentially worse. It is, frankly, catastrophic.

So what does that tell us about the current local position of the once-proud, 16-time NBA champion Boston Celtics? That 0.5 is what they drew locally for last Saturday afternoon's playoff game against the Indiana Pacers. That 0.5 translates into approximately 10,000 homes in Greater Boston, and an audience of 25,000 people. You want a frame of reference? The Revolution drew a 0.8 for their game Saturday night against the San Jose Earthquakes.

The Celtics will play Indiana in Game 3 of their first-round series tonight at the Fleet. I am sure we will be told that the game is a sellout of 18,624, whether it is or not. It may even have the feel of a playoff game. But outside of what actually happens within those four walls, there will be no other local manifestation of an NBA playoff taking place in our town. In this town, the talk is of the Red Sox, who are in New York, the NFL Draft, which takes place tomorrow, of the Bruins' demise, and perhaps even of the Revolution. No one is talking about the Celtics, the Pacers, or the NBA.

As one of my old history teachers used to say, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen."

The Celtics are not a horrible team. They're surely not a very good team, either, but they aren't horrible. But their presence in the playoffs with a record of 36-46 is an embarrassment. If this were college ball, they would have been in a position to turn down the invitation to the tournament on the basis of unworthiness. It is strictly a byproduct of Eastern Conference ineptitude. The rules call for eight teams from each conference and, as mediocre as the Celtics were, seven teams were worse.

They're going down, of course. This is a classic 1-vs.-8 series, the kind the Old Celtics, and Ye Olden Celtics, used to smirk at when they were the 1 and the other poor slobs were the 8. Oh, sure, Paul Pierce could go off for 45, and Jermaine O'Neal could get into foul trouble and the referees might serve up some good old-fashioned Home Court Stew and they could steal one, either tonight or Sunday afternoon. But that's it. One victory is the maximum, and none is more likely. The Celtics are going down, and then we shall see what Danny Ainge has in mind, come draft day.

Danny has the requisite thick skin. He knows most people who still care think he has wrecked a good team and have serious doubts that he has the basketball smarts to put together a contending ball club. At first, he only had to deal with the Antoine Walker fans. Now there is a much wider base of criticism. The Cleveland trade was definitely not popular. It is still very doubtful that Ricky Davis and Boston will ever be a good fit. As talented as he is, the man may never get that elusive "it."

I'm tired of hearing how young Ricky Davis still is. He is 24. When the Trail Blazers won it all in 1977, Maurice Lucas was 25, Bill Walton was 24, Lionel Hollins was 23, and Bob Gross was 23, and they constituted four-fifths of the Portland starting five in a league that featured a far higher percentage of grizzled vets than are present in the league today. I fear people will be making excuses for Davis's immaturity when he's 34.

I have no problems with Ainge's stated goal, which is to get a younger, faster team that has a better balance of offense and defense than the team he took over ever had. Now the question is whether you want to accomplish this goal with the Ricky Davises of the world, or with players who don't force the truly knowledgeable fans you have left to reach for the cyanide pellets by the third quarter. Until Danny starts producing a few of those people, he will be known as the guy who brought us Ricky Davis, and nothing else.

This is written as if, despite the 0.5 rating, someone still cares. This is written on the assumption that people simply need to be shown some sign of insight on the part of the team's executive director of basketball operations that can make them think there is some light, however dim, at the end of this tunnel.

It probably makes sense that few people care about what's going on in the here and now, because with the Celtics, the only thing that matters is what lies ahead. The present matters to the coach, of course, even though he is sufficiently attuned to reality to know that someone else will be coaching the team next season. It matters to the owners, who are charmingly naive to begin with. But we know for a fact the present is of only slight interest to the executive director of basketball operations himself. If put in a "Don't quote me" mode, I'd bet Danny Ainge would say that he can understand the 0.5 because he's a lot more interested in what lies ahead than what's taking place now himself.

So I'll say what he can't: Let's get the season over so we can turn our attention to hiring a coach, plotting the draft, and making assorted offseason moves. We already know all we need to know about this year's team.

Bob Ryan's e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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