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BOB RYAN

Long losing streak spurs Celtics

The San Antonio Spurs are in town tonight, and that calls to mind the occasion back in the Glory Days when the Celtics had beaten Utah about 87 kazillion times in a row, and at the conclusion of yet another Garden destruction of the hapless team from Salt Lake City, a reporter began his inquiry of Jazz coach Frank Layden with a technical question or two.

Layden looked at the assembled media. ''What?" he said. ''Were we supposed to win?"

A succession of Celtics coaches can relate.

The Celtics last defeated the Spurs Jan. 8, 1997. The Celtics, en route to that delightful 15-67 season that was supposed to bring them Tim Duncan in the lottery, caught a break that night (or not, depending on your point of view) when San Antonio regulars David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Dominique Wilkins, and Vinny Del Negro all missed the game. The Celtics were missing many of their players, too, but it was the Who, not the What, that mattered, and the Celtics emerged with a 107-83 victory. We all know how Lottery Day turned out. The Celtics had the most ping-pong balls, but the Spurs won the lottery and Rick Pitino would later confess that if he had known he was not going to get Tim Duncan, he would have stayed in Lexington, Ky.

Eight seasons, one strike/lockout/whatever, three San Antonio championships, and 15 meetings later, the Celtics are still looking for the next victory over the Spurs, or, to put it another way, Duncan has never lost to the Celtics and Paul Pierce has never beaten the Spurs.

Nor, it should be pointed out, have Pierce and his mates come close very often. Ten of those 15 San Antonio victory margins have been in double figures, and only two have been fewer than 5. This whole business is a clear case of shamrock abuse.

At no point in the last eight seasons have the Celtics been supposed to defeat the Spurs, and that will again be the case tonight.

''I didn't know until the second game last year how long it had been since the Spurs have lost to Boston," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. ''But, really, they've just been better."

Rivers won't be dwelling on the prolonged 0-fer in any motivational sense. He knows they know, and he'll concentrate on the X's and O's, not the history.

''I heard two guys mentioning that Wednesday after the game," Rivers relates. ''So they know it. And so does Tim Duncan. But that streak has nothing to do with [tonight]."

The fact is it does mean something to Pierce, who joined the Celtics in 1998. ''I know it's the only team I haven't beaten," he says.

With three championships in the last six years, the Spurs have placed themselves in that rare category whereby in addition to winning ballgames and championships, which is nice, they truly stand for something, which is even better. They are a pejorative, at least in the NBA community.

''I would say they are the best defensive team over a five-year period I've ever seen," maintains Rivers, who broke into the NBA in 1983. ''The numbers bear that out. They remind me of the '85 Bears." (That's spoken with eyes twinkling, as only a Chicago native's would.)

Of course, when you're talking about the Spurs, it all begins with one name. Peruse the rosters of the three championship teams and there is just one constant. All sorts of basketball personalities have come and gone, but it doesn't seem to matter as long as No. 21 walks on the floor. Tim Duncan is Mr. Spur.

''Tim Duncan is a great player, a superstar," Rivers says. ''He is also coachable, extremely coachable. He takes it from Pop [coach Gregg Popovich]. And because he does, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have to take it from Pop, too."

Ah, yes, ''Pop." Let's not forget Pop. No NBA team, even one whose marquee player answers to the name ''The Big Fundamental," operates on auto pilot. There are countless decisions to be made, and in San Antonio they are made by Popovich, a three-time championship coach who has managed to fly, not merely under the radar, but just about under the earth. The worst you can say about Pop is that he doesn't get in the way. The best you can say is that he is smart, disciplined, creative, and in possession of the necessary temperament that enables a man to stay the course in what is often a very frenzied league. This is a guy who was supposedly ''mentored" by the likes of Larry Brown and Don Nelson. He must smile when he contemplates the fact that he has two more championship rings than those two high-profile guys combined.

The Spurs will not be at full strength. Newly acquired Michael Finley has a groin problem, and sharpshooter Brent Barry has been suffering from back spasms. Ginobili is hobbling. To which the Celtics will undoubtedly say, ''Boo" and ''Hoo."

Duncan will be there, won't he? The Quiet Man has a new look this year. He's actually sprouting hair all over the place, including his chin. But it's the same old Duncan, doing Whatever It Takes to produce a W. On Wednesday night, the Spurs were sluggish in the first half at Charlotte. Pop exercised his vocal cords a bit at halftime, but the big thing was that in the third quarter the Spurs went back to basics. In other words, they threw the ball to Duncan, who had 15 of his 29 points as the Spurs moved to a 94-86 triumph.

Scoring and rebounding are just the beginning for a guy who is an annual lock to be a first-teamer on both the All-League and All-Defensive squads. ''Tim will contest every shot," points out Brian Scalabrine, one Celtic who has actually played in a winning game or two against the Spurs (as a Net). ''But the thing is when you get to the fourth quarter, he still has only two fouls. If you're a Spur and are out on the wing, you can get up to pressure your man because you know he'll be back there."

''He gets taken for granted," Popovich said following the Charlotte game. ''We expect it out of him every night. There is not a lot of flash, but he is going to rebound and block shots and play D every single night. He's a special guy."

The fact that he was supposed to be doing all this in a Celtics uniform concerns him not at all. He has no idea that many in Boston have never gotten over the fact that he wound up in San Antonio after the Celtics went to the trouble to go 15-67. He was supposed to be the heir to Russell, Cowens, and Bird. Instead, he's an aloof tyrant who never, ever loses to the Celtics.

That's not hyperbole. That's the truth.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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