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ON BASKETBALL

Patient Rivers has been watching kids grow up

If a little knowledge is, indeed, a dangerous thing, then, for sure, ignorance is bliss. That's the only way Doc Rivers can approach tonight's Game 5 in terms of what he knows he's going to get from his kids.

Just like you and me, he has no clue.

Will he get the Al Jefferson from Game 1 (8 points, 7 rebounds in 17 minutes) or the Al Jefferson from Game 3 (4 points, 1 rebound in 19 minutes)? Will he get the Delonte West of Game 4, who looked like a composed John Lucas, or the Delonte West who pitched a shutout in 11 minutes in Game 2?

It doesn't stop there and, frankly, it doesn't stop with the kids. Will Raef LaFrentz, for instance, be able to guard Jermaine O'Neal mano a mano, as he did so effectively in Game 4? But the real wild cards are Jefferson, West, Marcus Banks, and Tony Allen. Three of them are rookies and will be until the last buzzer of the last game.

"I know we'll get a good effort," Rivers said, referring to a possible reprise of the energetic and effective performance of the kids in the Game 4 rout of the Pacers. Asked if he was worried about which kids he'd see, he offered that, at one point earlier in the season, he did worry. But not anymore -- and it's because he has accepted them for who they are.

"I've learned to live with it," he said. "That's who we are."

Regardless of how the Celtics fare in this series and beyond, Rivers sometimes gets lost in the conversation when the subject turns to ''Bright spots, 2004-05." The kids, unfailingly, get mentioned. Ricky Davis's apparent transformation gets mentioned. Gary Payton's apparent transformation gets mentioned. Antoine Walker's reintegration gets mentioned.

Who do you think presided over all this and had a major hand in making it happen? The Coach Fairy?

I'd never looked at Rivers as one of the elite NBA coaches; confession, Doc, I voted for Phil Jackson for Coach of the Year in 2000. I wondered whether Rivers would be able to work with Danny Ainge when he wanted more input into personnel when he coached the Orlando Magic and tended to dispense the blame elsewhere when the end was near. During last year's playoffs, Laker Horace Grant, who had a few run-ins with Rivers in Orlando, gave Doc two years in Boston before things started to come unhinged.

That may still be true. But Rivers walked into a job that, frankly, came with little hype and very few expectations. The Celtics of 2004-05 also were a team with little to no interest -- until Walker came back and they started to win. And, let's face it, Rivers has been blessed this year with the type of good fortune that coaches can only dream about -- his five top players missed a total of five games this season because of injuries. When Ainge mentions how he doesn't think the Celtics handle adversity, well, to quote Larry Bird, "I'll take his adversity any day." But you coach who you got and Rivers has done that, while reminding one and all that he is the boss and things are going to be done his way.

I mean, does anyone not believe Paul Pierce is a better player now having gone through a year in Rivers's system, other than Paul Pierce, of course? Could anyone have reigned in Walker as Rivers has done? Jim O'Brien couldn't. Or wouldn't.

Think about it. When Rivers went into training camp, he had Davis and Payton -- and most of us would opt for oral surgery over having to deal with those two. Payton never wanted to be here. Davis personified the term ''knucklehead." Think about the possibilities there.

Both, obviously, had their reasons for not acting out, but, nonetheless, it's been pretty quiet on both fronts all season. Rivers has to get credit for some of that, doesn't he? Sure, Payton had to rehabilitate himself if he had any chance of future employment. Davis had been through five coaches in two years; right now, Rivers must look like Jerry Sloan to him.

Rivers was presented with a difficult proposition -- try to be competitive, teach the kids, and make the playoffs. Oh, and also implement a new offense that emphasized running, sharing the ball, and taking higher percentage shots. He got a wad of dough to make that happen, but, so what? A lot of coaches make a lot of money and do less with more.

For the most part, Rivers has been consistent to that end. (There was the brain lock in Game 2 of the Indy series, for which he admitted wrongdoing.) It helps that he has, in Ainge, a benefactor as well as a boss and one who is content to take some blows now for the greater good down the road.

Coaches don't think that way, but Rivers has no choice. He has done what he has been asked to do; Ainge recently called Rivers's work this season "amazing."

When the final page is closed on this year's Celtics, let's hope that the role and impact of the coach don't get lost in the discussion. That would be a mistake.

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