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CELTICS NOTEBOOK

Ainge getting ready for Payton re-signing

Veteran point guard Gary Payton has verbally agreed to rejoin the Celtics, according to executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Payton was dealt to Atlanta Feb. 24 in the Antoine Walker trade and waived by the Hawks Tuesday. He clears waivers tomorrow, when the Celtics plan to reacquire him.

"It looks good," said Ainge last night after Boston's 104-101 win over the Lakers. "He can't actually sign the paperwork until [tomorrow], so it's not officially done, but we're expecting him back."

Payton was in Boston yesterday but did not attend last night's game. There was some discussion among the Celtics ownership about whether bringing back Payton was the right move, with rookie Delonte West continuing to play exceptionally. But in the end, Payton's experience and his positive attitude while he was with the club was too tempting to overlook.

In his postgame press conference, coach Doc Rivers voiced his pleasure at the prospect of Payton returning. The veteran point guard should be ready to go for tomorrow night's game against Charlotte. Rivers said he was "positive that he would be surprised if [Payton] did not re-sign."

Rivers added: "I talked to him [yesterday]. I can't tell you want we talked about, but it didn't sound like he was going anywhere else. And that was great. I hadn't been able to get a hold of him since the trade. Honestly, I was getting a little nervous . . . He didn't say he was coming, but he was as close as I've seen him to committing to anything. I would be surprised if he didn't."

No bother to Banks
When Payton returns, Marcus Banks stands as the likely candidate to lose minutes in the deal. Since Payton was traded to Atlanta, Banks has played well with guaranteed minutes as a backup to West. Banks played 20 minutes against Utah and 31 minutes in an overtime win over Phoenix. Last night, he tied his career high with eight assists in 22 minutes off the bench. But Banks would welcome a Payton signing.

"I learned a lot from Gary," said Banks. "He knows the game and has been around a long time. Of course, I want to be out there playing, but anything for the team. When he comes back, if he's going to make our team that much better, I'll sit. It's not a big difference. Of course, I want him to come back for the simple fact that it's going to make our team that much deeper, as far as bench-wise. It'll help us go deeper in the playoffs."

And what about the loss of consistent minutes?

"Basically, [guaranteed minutes as a backup] give you a lot of confidence," said Banks. "You play well and you have times when you don't play so well, but the main thing is just to get out there and do the best job you can and make it happen."

He's got his number
In the big surprise of the night, Walker took the court in his customary No. 8 jersey with rookie Al Jefferson moving down to No. 7.

"I saw Chris [Webber] in the Philly game [with his old number] and I just called up [league offices] and made a big deal [about it]," said Walker. "I said, `Well how did [Webber] get his number back and I didn't? Then, I conned Al Jefferson. I called him to my room and I tried to con that [No. 8] out of him. He said, `Fine.' "

Asked how costly it was to re-acquire No. 8, Walker replied, "That's undisclosed information."

The only player mildly disappointed in the switch was Rivers, who had some choice one-liners ready for No. 88, which Walker wore in his first two games back.

"I could care less about a number," said Rivers. "I thought 88 was better. Twice as nice. Second time around. I had all kinds of crap for that. Now, I don't have anything."

Fans are back
The most excited fan in the FleetCenter may have been owner Wyc Grousbeck, who was delighted to see a reenergized fan base as the Celtics push toward the playoffs. "It's been crazy [since the trade]," said Grousbeck. "I think it's great for our players, particularly our young players to feel the early playoff atmosphere of a sold-out FleetCenter." . . . The Celtics hope to have Tony Allen back tomorrow night, but the rookie guard has yet to run on his injured leg. Rivers believes Allen may have made the injury worse by continuing to play on it after going down in the first quarter at Utah Friday night . . . The national media appears to be picking up on the local buzz with Walker back. When Philadelphia and Chris Webber travels to Boston April 3, the game will be on ABC. Starting time has been moved up to 1 p.m. . . . With 29.7 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Paul Pierce converted a 4-point play. It was the Celtics' first 4-point play since a game at Phoenix March 15, 2001, also by Pierce.

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