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Celtics arrive at the break broken down

The late, great yachting writer for the Globe, John Ahern, had an unerring eye for predicting the outcome of a race. He would simply watch the start, see which boat did what, immediately proclaim a winner (which was always correct), and then, well, wait for the vessels to come back to port.

If Ahern were watching the Celtics, he could now make a pronouncement.

It's over.

Yes, technically, there are 28 games to play. But, for all intents and purposes, the season is kaput. There won't be any big playoff push. The highlight film for the 2003-04 season is now going to be called, "Back to the Future: Return to Secaucus."

After watching the Celtics fall apart Thursday night against a bad Bulls team, you could not come to any other conclusion. This is a defeated, demoralized, dysfunctional squad. It is eight games under .500 and going south quicker than the snowbirds from Maine and New Hampshire.

Only three weeks ago, the Celtics were one game under .500 -- and one game behind the New Jersey Nets for first place in the Atlantic Division. Since then, the Nets haven't lost -- and each of their 10 wins has been by 10 or more points -- and the Celtics have won only once, a still-improbable thrashing of the Sixers eight days ago. Other than that blip, there have been eight losses in nine games, climaxed by the 20-point embarrassment in Chicago. Oh, yeah, and the coach quit. (What did Jim O'Brien know and when did he know it?)

Maybe this is all part of Danny Ainge's still-unexplained grand plan. Maybe Ainge wanted to go back into the lottery, although he never publicly stated as much (which, of course, he couldn't). It's hard to believe the owners would accept such a free fall, especially with all the revenue (not to mention karma and publicity) derived from the playoffs. But that is exactly where the Celtics are headed, despite the fact that they are still "in contention" for a playoff berth (they're a half-game ahead of the Sixers for the coveted No. 8 spot as of today). Do you think the season ticket-holders ponied up all that money for this?

The players are going every which way. They're not stupid. They know that John Carroll is truly Mr. Interim; why should they make any emotional investment in him? Ricky Davis is working on his fifth coach in 1 1/2 seasons. Think he's going to listen to anyone at this point? The players also know that Ainge has all but put a match to the season. If the boss is so indifferent to the way things go, why should his players feel differently?

Paul Pierce had 4 points against the Bulls Thursday. Four. That defies belief. He took only six shots. That really defies belief. It also conjures up memories of Larry Bird deliberately bypassing shots in protest of Jimmy Rodgers's dictum to make him a point forward. You don't need to connect too many more dots to see Pierce going postal -- and public -- with his disenchantment. Right now, his body language is screaming.

Of the 28 games remaining, 15 are on the road. The Celtics still have the Lakers, Pacers, Nets, and Trail Blazers passing through the FleetCenter. Even if they go .500, that gives them 37 wins. But how on earth can you envision them playing that well given what we've seen in the last three weeks? Simply, you can't.

It was fun while it lasted. Two straight years in the playoffs. A trip to the conference finals. A sense that things had finally turned around after the Rick Pitino disaster.

Now we have this: a discombobulated team going in about 12 directions led by a coach with no real authority. In the spirit of Mr. Ahern, we can now make a similar claim. It is, indeed, over.

Sizzling Grizzlies

One of the great stories at the All-Star break is going on in Memphis. The Grizzlies entered the break with a 30-22 record, the most victories in the history of the franchise (and one more than it had in its first two years in Vancouver). Coach Hubie Brown is getting things to work by going against the grain with a 10-man rotation in which his best player, Pau Gasol, is the only one who averages more than 30 minutes a game. (And he's at 32.3.) Nine others average 17.8 minutes or more. Gasol is the only Grizzly in the top 50 in scoring (31st at 17.6 ppg); three members of the 22-29 Clippers are averaging more points than Gasol. As of now, the Grizzlies would be in the Western Conference playoffs, a remarkable turnaround that is a direct tribute to Brown and to Jerry West, the man who hired him. "It means we are doing things right," Gasol said after Wednesday's 110-102 victory over the Clippers. "Nobody expected us to be where we are. We know we have a good chance to make something happen here." After the game, Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said the Grizzlies not only are going to make the playoffs, "they may do some damage." Dunleavy was recruited out of high school (Nazareth Regional in Brooklyn) by a young, peppery Duke assistant named Hubie Brown back in 1972. They have stayed friends over the years, even though Dunleavy elected to go to South Carolina. "They have a good team because of their depth," Dunleavy said. Agreed Elton Brand, "They have two teams that can come in and contribute. Player after player, they are good." . . . The NBA today will announce the Hall of Fame finalists for the Class of 2004. The main newcomer to the equation is Clyde Drexler, who could well be a first-year inductee. Drexler's final season was 1997-98, meaning he has been out the necessary five years. He played 15 years in the NBA, the first 11 1/2 with Portland, which he led to the NBA Finals twice (1990, 1992) and the final 3 1/2 with Houston, with whom he won his only ring (1995). Drexler was named one of the top 50 players in NBA history in 1996 and was one of the last additions to the first (and only) Dream Team in 1992. He remains the Blazers' all-time leader in scoring, rebounding, and steals. Is he a Hall of Famer? Ainge thinks so. Ainge was a teammate of Drexler's for two years (1990-92) and said, "For the two years I played with him, I thought he was the second-best player in basketball." Ainge conceded that the perception of Drexler was that he was a high-flying free-former on a less-than-MENSA team. He said that is not a fair assessment of either Drexler or the Trail Blazers. "He played the way his coach wanted him to play," Ainge said. "He passed the ball. He shot the ball. He rebounded the ball. He got them to the Finals twice and they simply were beaten by a better team [Detroit in 1990, Chicago in 1992]. But I think he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame." Another player eligible for the first time is former Cavaliers guard Mark Price. While he may not be deemed to be Springfield-worthy, he did retire as the most accurate free throw shooter in NBA history (90.4 percent with a minimum of 1,200 makes) and was All-NBA first team in 1993 and third team on three other occasions.

Election daze

The Orlando Magic asked fans to vote on the 10 most popular players in team history as part of a 15th anniversary celebration. (You can understand why they might want to take the focus away from this year.) A couple of shockers: Ben Wallace finished 10th, even though he played only one year there (1999-00) and Shaquille O'Neal finished fourth behind Tracy McGrady, Darrell Armstrong, and -- gulp -- Nick Anderson. "I think Shaq would have finished higher had he stayed here," cracked Magic executive Pat Williams, who read the list at halftime of last week's game against Miami. "He had to know this [vote] was coming." The other finishers: Horace Grant (9), Bo Outlaw (8), Dennis Scott (7), Scott Skiles (6), Penny Hardaway (5). What, no Greg Kite? . . . How could this have happened? In last Sunday's home game against Toronto, the Golden State Warriors somehow manged to score a grand total of 2 points in the fourth quarter. "You know how cold the winter has been back in Boston? That's what we were like," offered Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean. The only basket came on an Erick Dampier layup with 9:43 remaining. The Warriors also missed three free throws and added nine turnovers to spice things up. The Raptors won in overtime. The 2-point quarter matched the lowest in NBA history; the Dallas Mavericks had 2 points in the third quarter of a game against the Lakers April 6, 1997. Like the gutty group they are, the Warriors recovered nicely and posted wins over Seattle and Phoenix heading into the All-Star break . . . Chris Ford was on his way to work last week when his cellphone rang. (Yes, it's true. Ford is inching into the 21st century.) It was Sixers general manager Billy King, who told him that Randy Ayers was out and Ford was in. "I had no idea it was coming," said Ford, who hung up and then got a call from Ayers, wishing him well. Ford's hiring by the Sixers last fall was a bit unusual in that he was not close with Ayers. But people in high places made some calls and he was brought in as an assistant coach. Now, he's the guy calling the shots for at least the rest of the season. "I was very happy being an assistant," Ford said. "I was just hoping it would be a long-lasting situation. And then this happens. We'll see how it goes." The Sixers, like the Celtics, are a mess. They've had injuries to key people and a combustible personnel situation. "All I'm going to do is ask them to be professional and let me coach them," Ford said. The lads listened in Ford's debut, routing the Wizards in Philadelphia last Wednesday. This week will be a test: roadies at Denver, Seattle, and the Lakers. Ford said Marc Jackson may return for the Western swing . . . Wizards coach Eddie Jordan acknowledged this past week that certain unnamed people told him to stick around in New Jersey because he'd eventually get the Nets job when Byron Scott got whacked. Instead, Jordan accepted the Washington job, leaving the Nets after four years as Scott's lieutenant. Jordan acknowledged that players were unhappy with Scott "at certain times." But, he added, "I didn't want the job under those circumstances. I didn't know how it was going to happen and, frankly, I thought I'd be put in a tough spot in New Jersey taking over for Byron."

A generous King

This is why we love the Sacramento Kings. Vlade Divac had 11 assists last Wednesday against Detroit. That came 24 hours after Divac went for 11 assists against the Bucks. And, four games prior to that, Divac went for 11 assists against Seattle. He's a center. Divac has gone assistless in only one game this season, Feb. 8 against Denver. The Kings didn't seem to notice, pounding the Nuggets, 115-92. Sacramento is hoping to get a firm word on a return date for Chris Webber this week. The Kings, meanwhile, have compiled the league's best record without their best player playing a single minute . . . It might be a tad unfair to call Atlanta the Portland Dumping Ground, but in the last five years, the Hawks have taken Isaiah Rider and Rasheed Wallace from the Blazers. In the first instance, Atlanta mistakenly believed it was making a sound personnel move. In the latest instance, there's no such presumption. Wallace might as well book the monthly rate at the Omni because he's outta there at the end of the season. Same with Wes Person . . . Nets interim coach Lawrence Frank, not to be confused with John Wooden (we think), entered the All-Star break with a 9-0 record, matching the best start ever for an in-season replacement coach. What did his players tell him before the break? Buy some new threads . . . The Eastern Conference might be a coaching graveyard, but it wasn't thus not so long ago. In the 1990s alone, you had Ford and George Karl spending five years with Boston and Milwaukee, respectively, Mike Fratello spending six years in Cleveland, Lenny Wilkens spending seven years in Atlanta, and Phil Jackson going from 1989-98 in Chicago. You also had Pat Riley going eight seasons in Miami (1995-2003) and Jeff Van Gundy going five full years and parts of two others in New York. The dean of the East is now Terry Stotts of Atlanta, who has been on the job less than 14 months.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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