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Carrying baggage

As Celtics break up, the future's full of questions

In a decidedly non-scientific poll, the Celtics' players were asked about their frustration following a four-game sweep by the Pacers. Filing out of their FleetCenter locker room with garbage bags stuffed with personal belongings, they paused briefly to consider an answer. Almost to a man, the players said frustration was not the word they would use. They passed frustration sometime in February.

"If you were not mentally tough, this season probably wore you down by early March," said Mark Blount. "It's been a load. From the people in the front office to the trades to the change in coaches, it's been a load."

The Celtics' heaviest baggage was always emotional. And no matter how many plastic bags the players slung over their shoulders before leaving the FleetCenter, that fact has not changed. Whomever executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge hires as the next coach should bring a few books on psychology with him, in addition to whatever plans he has for developing an up-tempo basketball team. The Celtics are at a point where X's and O's should be secondary to teaching the players how a successful team conducts itself, at least initially.

In listing all the qualities he wants in a new coach, Ainge does not leave anything out. He figures a coaching staff, with the repeated emphasis on staff, can teach all the fundamentals from the fast break to "intense defense." And yes, Ainge said he wants Boston to play intense defense. But right at the top of the wish list is a man capable of bringing "professionalism" and "maturity" and "character" to the Celtics.

With those three qualities in place, Ainge believes Boston will have the chemistry that was so clearly absent this season. Chemistry won't cure the team's problems, but it is a start. More and better talent always will be the best and final solution.

Under the glare of the playoff spotlight, a team's flaws are exposed far more than in the regular season. A national TV audience saw a Celtics squad on which each player had his own agenda, and listening to ex-interim coach John Carroll during timeouts was optional. Captain Paul Pierce admitted the team was not ready for playoff action. It was enough to make Boston fans thankful NBA TV broadcast Game 2, and that the Red Sox provided entertainment Sunday afternoon during Game 4.

"There's a lot of things that can destroy chemistry," said Ainge. "And we experienced those this year. I don't sit here and pretend to believe that we were good enough to beat Indiana in the playoffs. But I believe with just chemistry our team would have made a much better showing. You can't be successful without chemistry."

When asked how the Celtics could establish chemistry, Ainge added: "[The team] needs maturity. It needs leadership from me, but mainly coaches and players. I think it will be up to the players and up to the coaches. A coaching situation can bring a tremendous change in players. But I believe you don't invent chemistry. Obviously, character and professionalism plays a big part in that. We have some individual players that need to mature."

Translation, in part: Marcus Banks and Ricky Davis need to know the playoffs provide neither the time nor the place to complain about your role. Chucky Atkins, Pierce et al, venting about the Celtics' poor play was more than understandable, but at some point, you need to channel that anger and frustration in a productive direction.

After bemoaning the fact that the coaching staff did not call his number, did not have enough confidence in him, and did not give him the bigger role he deserved on offense, Davis toned down his rhetoric in the aftermath of the first-round embarrassment.

"We had a lot of mixed up, a lot of strong heads in here," said Davis. "The guys worked through it. We'll just come in next year, add a few things here and there, and be on our way again. We need to do a lot of stuff. It's hard to put a finger on it, what we really need."

If the new coaching staff took suggestions from Davis, the answer would be more of Davis. But the Celtics need a coach capable of providing discipline. And that means discipline on the court, in huddles, and in the way players conduct themselves before and after games and at practice. During a brief postseason, a lack of discipline showed up in player comments and on the court in areas such as turnovers and ineffective defense.

"There's no excuse, I don't care how good the other team's defense is, for giving turnovers and giving up cheap baskets," said none other than Red Auerbach. "The passing of some of these guys is horrendous. It's terrible. And it's something they've got to think about, something that they've got to work with. But individually, some of the kids are good and they'll be an integral part of the ball club. But we need help. We need about three players.

"[The Pacers] were aggressive. That's what we've got to be. If you're only going to wait until something happens, then retaliate, you're never going to win. We need an instigator, a big, tough guy. [Ainge] is going at it the right way, but it's going to take time. The people in this town, a lot of times they don't have the patience."

First, the Celtics' new coach will have to be the tough one who has his patience tested. 

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