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A nice addition was subtracted

Injury forces durable Payton out of lineup

He didn't play. That, in and of itself, is hoop Halley's Comet.

For all the trees that have been felled over the years chronicling anything and everything about Gary Payton, there's been one indisputable fact: He doesn't miss games. He can be everything from abrasive to solicitous, but he is unfailingly durable. If this were baseball, Doc Rivers wouldn't have to worry about penciling Payton in on his lineup card.

But Rivers was worried last night. He wasn't worried about Payton not playing. He was worried Payton might play. Payton strained his left hamstring Sunday night against the Pistons and his status for last night's game was up in the air an hour before tipoff.

Rivers, looking at things like a coach, imagined Payton's leg exploding on the first trip up the floor.

"This whole thing scares me," Rivers said. A few seconds later, however, Rivers, a former point guard himself, said, "This is a game where players play." And, he conceded, "Most of the time, you let them play."

But not last night.

In the end, after working out before Rivers's phalanx of assistants, Payton was ruled out of the game against the New Orleans Hornets. The news came down about 30 minutes before tipoff. "They were just being cautious," said Payton, who added that he "most likely" will play tomorrow night against the Warriors. He was not on the bench during the game.

This is Payton's 15th NBA season. Last Friday, he fessed up to some knee tendinitis but said he was unsure what to do about it because he's never had tendinitis before. (Think Patrick Ewing might explain it to him?) Then came the hamstring strain, which forced him out of Sunday's game early in the second half.

Last night was just the fourth time he's missed a game because of injury, and his career spans 1,139 games. Pervis Ellison he isn't. Payton missed a game Jan. 14, 1992, in his second season, because of back spasms. Then he went 354 games before missing another. The streak ended March 15, 1996, when he was suspended for a game by the NBA and fined $6,000 for head-butting Joe Wolf.

Payton didn't miss another game until the 2000-01 season. On Jan. 19, 2001, he was suspended by the Sonics one game for getting into a verbal altercation with teammate Ruben Patterson in a game against the Suns. That ended a streak that had reached 356 games. Two weeks later, he missed successive games with an abdominal strain. Eight days later, however, he played 18 minutes in the All-Star Game.

Until last night, he had not missed a game since February 2001. But Payton is 36 and Rivers has been openly wondering all season -- and last night was only Game 31 -- whether Payton would wear down, wear out, or something in between.

"You'd almost expect he'd go down at some point," Rivers said.

Well, not really. Payton's history says he doesn't go down. If he does, he generally gets right back up. That is important to him and the Celtics, for he needs them and they need him. (Check last night's first half for irrefutable evidence.)

This is a critical year for Payton. He had a lousy experience with the Lakers last year, capped by a brutal postseason. But then the Lakers showed Phil Jackson the door and Payton saw hope, exercising his option to stay in Los Angeles. Then the Lakers traded him to a place he never, ever wanted to be.

It took a lot of convincing, hand-holding, and a private jet just to get Payton here. Since he arrived, he has been a model citizen. He has no other choice. He is in the last year of his contract and the absolute last thing he needs is for his image to take another hit. He is being the consummate pro.

The Celtics are letting everyone know that Payton is being the consummate pro. Rivers can't get through a daily briefing without lauding Payton. Danny Ainge will tell you the same things. But Ainge has to do something soon with Payton -- the trading deadline is next month -- or probably lose him for nothing. One thing you haven't heard: Let's sign Gary to a two-year extension because he's been so good and professional.

Payton has been a terrific addition -- and I didn't see how he could possibly be anything other than a royal pain because he had to play away from his family on a team with no chance to win in the final year of his contract at the age of 36. It still doesn't make any sense.

But the mere fact that his absence last night was a bulletin -- and clearly a factor for 24 minutes against a team with two wins -- reminds you of something you've come to take for granted over the years: Whomever he plays for, Payton invariably shows up and shows well. 

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