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BOB RYAN

This clash act couldn't go on

The only surprise is that it took 43 days. Jim O'Brien has been a Spiritually Dead Coach Walking since Dec. 15.

That was the day Celtics basketball honcho Danny Ainge traded Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kedrick Brown and stuck O'Brien with Ricky Davis and Michael (Yogi) Stewart. Chris Mihm was not a problem. O'Brien could have lived with Mihm.

You know what trading Williams was? That was Ainge plunging a dagger in O'Brien's heart. Williams was his favorite Celtic player, the solid veteran who simply "gets it" in a way that some -- no, most -- never do. And do you know what inflicting Davis on the Celtics was? That was Ainge making O'Brien pledge allegiance to what he could only feel was the basketball version of the antichrist.

I will not soon forget the funereal atmosphere at the FleetCenter that December night. The entire coaching staff was morose. The team had just won five games in succession and morale was at a season high. This is the hope-springs-eternal Atlantic Division, remember, and the staff truly believed their team was finally jelling and would have a serious chance to unseat the Nets. And then, in their eyes and minds, it was gone. Poof. They were left with the chilling realization: Does he really want us to coach Ricky Davis?

O'Brien tried it for six weeks, but yesterday he stopped kidding himself. He was no longer comfortable working for a boss with whom he seemed to be at cross purposes, and so he did the honorable thing. He offered his resignation. I wouldn't think Danny tried very hard to talk him out of it.

There are many words to describe the current state of the Celtics, but the one that leaps out at me is "chaotic." There have been some noted lows in franchise history, but few have been lower than this.

It's not the record. They've had worse 46-game records, but that's not the point. It's the feel of the entire enterprise. There is a growing sense that the organization is adrift, that Ainge is trying to move too fast and that while he may know his basketball, he is a little weak in the people department. How could he not know what O'Brien had come to represent to this franchise?

Doesn't he understand? O'Brien was the only source of stability in the organization, and now he is gone.

Let's go back three years to the departure of Rick Pitino. When O'Brien was named to succeed him, people shrugged and said, "Who cares?" He had been the loyal lieutenant, barking out things on the sideline, but he had kept such a low public profile that no one had any sense that he could be a leader. And yet the team responded, and improved, instantaneously. For one thing, the Celtics began winning on the road as soon as O'Brien took over, a phenomenon that continues to this very day. You could win a lot of bar bets by asking people, "What is the only team in the NBA with a losing record at home and a .500 record on the road?" Around here, we know the answer.

O'Brien commanded respect in the locker room from the moment he took over. He impressed the players by being smart, dogged, and sincere. His innate integrity was evident to everyone. It was a team of mismatched parts that never had an inside game, but he guided it within two games of the NBA Finals two years ago and past the vastly more talented Indiana Pacers one year ago. It is an article of faith that the outcome of that Indiana-Boston series would have been reversed had the coaches been switched.

A lot of people, myself included, were aesthetically offended by the bombs-away, 3-point-shot approach to offense O'Brien championed, but I never doubted that he had arrived at the decision to play that way only after a great deal of thought. He simply concluded that going over to the 3 gave his team the best chance to win. In a better world, he'd have a guy he could give the basketball to on the low box and ask him to score, but until that day came . . .

The Antoine Walker trade shook things up, but I don't think O'Brien really objected to it, and by Dec. 15, he and his team seemed to have things figured out. But trading Williams and Battie, two players for whom O'Brien had a strong we've-been-in-the-trenches-together feeling, was more than just annoying. It was personally offensive. It was Ainge saying, "I don't care what you've built, or what kind of relationship you have with your players, or, frankly, about this year. I've got a plan, and if you don't like it, too bad."

And I doubt O'Brien needed to hear from Ainge that one reason he made the trade was his confidence that O'Brien could coach anybody. O'Brien didn't want to coach just anybody, and he surely didn't want to coach Davis, a player for whom defense and hard work are alien concepts.

You've got to wonder whether Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca would like to have a do-over and forget the whole thing. They have jumped into the NBA, at great expense, a good 15 years too late, and now they are presiding over a certified disaster of a franchise.

The team isn't remotely close to winning that 17th title. The average game is an eyesore. The ticket prices have excluded the average fan, and the ones who can get in are blasted out by the idiotic noise that infests every NBA arena. The team's best player is having an increasingly horrible year (Paul Pierce has no business in this year's All-Star Game). And the only reason things weren't any worse was Jim O'Brien.

But it's no longer his worry. It's John Carroll's. And Danny Ainge's. And let's not forget Wyc and Steve, who might as well be lighting matches to thousand-dollar bills. I'll bet Jim O'Brien is feeling better than he has in, well, let's just say six weeks.

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

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