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BOB RYAN

Plan may be grand, but the season wasn't

If you didn't already know that it was never about this year, then you're coming in a bit late to the story.

The Grand Plan called for the Celtics not to make the playoffs, but because of forces way beyond their control (the utter collapse of the 76ers, the Jeff McInnis injury, etc.) they did anyway, and so we all had to watch the ensuing slaughter. What we just had was a rather classic 1-vs.-8 series, featuring teams separated by 25 games in the standings. Mercifully, it is over. The Pacers have swept the Celtics by margins of 16, 13, 23 and yesterday's 15 (90-75), and if it looked easy, it's because it was.

"This team probably wasn't ready for the playoffs," acknowledged Paul Pierce, who undoubtedly feels that he was an unwilling actor in some Seinfeldian Bizarro World skit. "Any other year we probably wouldn't even have made the playoffs. We ran into the best team in basketball and we weren't quite ready for them this year."

The Indiana Pacers did have the league's best record (61-21), but it may be a reach to say they really are the best team, this being the Eastern Conferfence and all. But they now have a chance to prove just how good they are. Meanwhile, they are immeasurably better than the Celtics. That is a non-negotiable premise.

But while the Pacers are at least one series away from any need for a post-mortem, the Celtics are finished for the year. The time to dissect this carcass is now.

First of all, let us stop with this nonsense that there was any great benefit in making the playoffs, other than the opportunity for management to open the doors two more times. Everything about their participation was, capital E, Embarrassing. They "clinched" their spot as the eighth team in the Eastern Conference playoffs while in the midst of a five-game losing streak. They didn't have the worst record to make the playoffs since the current format was instituted in 1985, but with 36 wins they were close. Now try this one: they did own the worst home record (19-22) of any team that has made the playoffs since the NBA went to an 82-game schedule in 1967.

They did not belong, OK?

As far as any supposed playoff experience garnered by first-timers such as Jiri Welsch, Ricky Davis, Marcus Banks, Chris Mihm, Brandon Hunter, etc., please. That would suggest there was some actual competition from which they could draw some benefit.

Pierce really didn't need to get his butt whipped like this, did he? I mean, this season was stressful enough for Boston's lone remaining All-Star. "I really have a bad taste in my mouth," he said. "This is the second year in a row we have been swept on our home court. That is really not a fun feeling to go out there and not even get a win in the last two years."

OK, now what?

There are two ways of phrasing the essential question pertaining to the current roster. Either you say, a) Which players would you keep? or b) Which players would you not really miss? I like b.

I would not really miss anyone other than Pierce, Mark Blount, and Welsch. How about you?

You should know, if you don't already, that we can all start missing Blount immediately. His car was running inside the Fleet during his entire impressive farewell game (a no-longer-surprising 21 points and 13 rebounds). A lot of people will pay a lot of money for a highly useful 28-year-old free agent 7-footer, and he has made it quite clear he wants no more of the Celtics organization.

So the starting center next year is either going to be Mihm or Raef LaFrentz, in case you're wondering.

Of course, what you and I think doesn't matter much. It's Danny Ainge's baby, which means you're going to be looking at Davis, Banks, and Mihm, for sure. Then there's the matter of the much-discussed draft choices.

Sure, Danny's got three of them, but we're talking about their own, Dallas's and Detroit's. That's 15, 24, and 25. Forgive me if I don't have the caterer on speed dial. We all know that Ainge would have been a lot happier being in the single digits. If he can go 2 for 3 from this spot in the order, maybe he is somebody special.

The Party Line is that everything is wonderful. Prosperity is just around the corner.

"I have huge faith in Danny Ainge," said managing partner Steve Pagliucca. "We've got three first-round draft choices. We've got Raef LaFrentz coming back. I think Danny Ainge knows how to put the pieces together to win in the NBA."

It would be nice to think so, but we are still very early in the process. Put me down as being as pleased with the Antoine Walker trade today as I was six months ago (note 'Toine's ever-diminishing playing time and importance in Dallas). Put me down as understanding the contractual and age reasons for the desire to unload Eric Williams and Tony Battie, but also put me down as being quite unimpressed with Davis, and, to a lesser extent Mihm, who certainly didn't impress John Carroll enough to warrant significant playing time.

Then there were the 2003 draft picks. If you know exactly what Marcus Banks is, please tell me. He surely isn't a point guard. He is an fine athlete blessed with phenomenal speed, but it seems to end there. We'll see about Kendrick Perkins. We knew from the start he was just a high school kid with a presumed upside. In sum, it's way too early to grade this draft, but . . .

There is an expansion draft coming up, which won't affect this team at all. Who are they going to lose? Walter McCarty? He's a fine fellow, but we'll survive (although Tommy Heinsohn might need consoling).

Almost forgot. The other big order of business for Ainge is to hire a coach to replace Carroll, who conducted himself with dignity in a difficult situation. Doc Rivers is the big known commodity sitting out there. The other name that makes sense is Paul Westphal, who adheres to Ainge's up-tempo philosophy, and who always has retained a strong feeling for Boston and the Celtics.

The messy 2003-04 season is in the books, and in the end the Celtics were nothing more than playoff roadkill. "I have to be optimistic," said Pierce. "I still have four more years with this team, and I definitely want to be part of the turnaround and bringing this team back to the level where the Boston Celtics are supposed to be."

That's brave and noble talk. I just hope Pierce realizes that accomplishing that goal will require the Big Dig of basketball projects.

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

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