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Baker getting started

His comeback has an opening

WALTHAM -- In the wake of the Antoine Walker trade, coach Jim O'Brien has found some clarity concerning the Celtics' starting lineup. Yesterday after practice, O'Brien named Vin Baker the starting power forward and Mike James the starting point guard for Wednesday's season opener against Miami at the FleetCenter.

The veterans join shooting guard Paul Pierce in a lineup that will be filled out in the next few days. O'Brien is deciding between Mark Blount and Tony Battie at center and between Eric Williams and Kedrick Brown at small forward. In both cases, defensive play will be the determining factor.

Before discussing why O'Brien decided upon Baker and James, it's important to offer a disclaimer. Given the dramatic changes made to the team just a few days ago, fans should not draw many conclusions from the Celtics' opening-night lineup. O'Brien reserves the right to change his mind (many times, if necessary) as new acquisitions Raef LaFrentz and Jiri Welsch adjust, as rookie point guard Marcus Banks matures, and as the Celtics' chemistry develops. Even before Walker was dealt to Dallas, O'Brien had talked about a rotation that would make the best use of Boston's depth.

"You would be reading in too much to put too much emphasis on the starting lineup the first night," said O'Brien. "Again, this is not the type of situation where I'm going with the same starting lineup for 80 games. I find that highly unlikely. You can almost forget about it.

"There's too much strength at positions and depth at center, small forward, power forward, and point guard that our guys have to know that when things are equally balanced . . . the guys that will be on the court are the guys that are performing to their maximum. If somebody is performing to their maximum at the beginning of the season and then has a letdown from the standpoint of effort, I'll make a change."

That said, Baker and James clearly have impressed O'Brien with their effort -- particularly on defense -- in the preseason. The coach called Baker's defense throughout training camp "excellent." When the 10-year veteran grabbed 11 rebounds in 25 minutes Wednesday against Minnesota, it was just the latest example of the impact he can make. Besides, there were really no other viable candidates for starting power forward once Walker left.

O'Brien went with James at point guard because the veteran, he believes, has "a better feel for the type of movement we want to get [on offense]." And having spent the last two seasons under the tutelage of Pat Riley in Miami, James has a solid understanding of the Celtics' style of defensive scheme.

"I've really been happy with Marcus's development," said O'Brien. "But I think [Mike] has a better feel at the point -- not that it's dramatically better. Marcus might be quicker and stronger than Mike and might ultimately become a better defensive player than Mike. But Marcus has a long way to go on defense, more than Mike does."

O'Brien may announce his starters at center and small forward soon after the exhibition season concludes with tonight's game against New Jersey at the FleetCenter. The coach already has a strong opinion, but he did not want to share it. But he hinted that the lineup Boston plays tonight likely will "resemble" the lineup fans will see on opening night.

If O'Brien goes with Blount and Brown, the Celtics will have four new starters. At the very least, there will be two. The one constant through all the changes has been Pierce. And so far the captain likes what he hears about the starting lineup.

"I think we've formed some good chemistry, especially with Vin out there," said Pierce. "He's really playing well for us. He's rebounding the ball. He's doing all the things we ask him to do.

"I think [O'Brien] doesn't really want to start Marcus because he doesn't want to put that pressure on him, being a rookie. He's going to bring him along slowly. Mike has a little more experience than Marcus Banks, so I'm not surprised at the starting lineup so far."

Baker, James, and Banks all appeared to take the news about the starting lineup in stride. All the players understand that defense and overall effort will earn them playing time. They also know it is probably more important who finishes games than who starts.

"It really doesn't make any different to me, whether I'm starting or coming off the bench," said James. "There are four quarters in the game. We can split the time in half. [Marcus] could play more minutes than me or I could play more. If he's having a hot night, if he's playing well, he'll probably play more. If I'm hot and I'm having a good night, then I'll probably play. We complement one another. We work hard against each other in practice to prepare ourselves for the games."

Baker is keeping his focus on the improvements he must make as his NBA comeback continues. For example, he did not score a single post-up basket Wednesday night, and that is something he must do. Baker readily acknowledged that his offense is lagging behind his defense, though that is not necessarily a bad thing when playing for O'Brien.

"The improvement is coming faster than I thought, especially after the start that I got off to," said Baker. "I was kind of taking baby steps. Now it seems like every game and practice, things are getting better and better."

O'Brien hopes that is the case for the Celtics in general. . . .

With one big move complete, rumors of another Celtics trade surfaced yesterday. The deal supposedly would send Williams and Battie to Houston for Eddie Griffin and Cuttino Mobley, with the Rockets throwing in Bostjan Nachbar to make the money work. "There was a rumor, but as far as I know, there's nothing happening with it," said Mark Bartelstein, who represents Williams. "I talked to [Houston general manager] Carroll Dawson today, and he said there's nothing going on at all." Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge also dismissed the rumor. "I haven't even had a conversation with Houston in over three months about anything," he said. "That is 100 percent make-believe. There's nothing going on." Ainge acknowledged that he continues to make calls about possible moves, "but there's nothing sticking. So right now I'm being patient and hoping we get better, and continuing to evaluate and see if there's anything else I need to try and pull off. I feel like there's things I need to try to pull off, and I've been [trying], but there's really nothing in the works right now." . . . The Celtics released guard Rusty LaRue, trimming the roster to 15 players for the regular season.

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