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Ainge believes Celtics are back to normal

The presumed point guard, Gary Payton, isn't here -- although we think he's coming. The power forward, Raef LaFrentz, is supposedly looking good in practice, even as he complains of soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. The acknowledged knucklehead from last year, Ricky Davis, "has a target" on his back, according to new coach Doc Rivers.

Of the 17 players on the Celtics' roster, only five were here at this time last year, some 72 hours prior to the seminal event of the 2004-05 season: Media Day. And of those 17, eight have two or fewer years of NBA experience.

But with all the flotsam swirling, basketball boss Danny Ainge says it's a calm, flat sea compared with Turbulence Central from a year ago.

"There's a little more normalcy," Ainge told reporters yesterday over lunch at the team's practice facility in Waltham. "Last year, there was unbelievable dysfunction, even more than I imagined. This year, management, ownership, and the coaches are all on the same page. It's very good now. Very functional."

Ainge said he was not blaming anyone for the craziness last season, which is wise because the chief culprit is the individual he sees every day in the mirror. But he took the heat and the hits along the way to rebuild the team and upgrade the talent level his way. He feels he has done that. He feels that in Rivers he has a coach -- his coach -- with whom he sees eye to eye on most matters, a coach who will allow him to not feel inclined to play the school principal all season.

"The fact that we are on the same page means that we have a chance to succeed," Ainge said. "I know that sounds fluffy, but that's the way it is. The commitment is there on all fronts. It's refreshing."

Agreed Celtics principal owner Wyc Grousbeck, "We have reason for optimism and it is based on these two basketball experts [Ainge and Rivers] and their strong bond."

That's not to insinuate we have Shangri-La or Xanadu. There are a number of outstanding issues, which, needless to say, is true of most teams. Ainge and/or Rivers touched on them yesterday.

* Payton: There's a Dylan/Woodstock thing going on here. Is he coming? Does he care? Both Ainge and Rivers say they expect Payton to report to camp, although neither would guarantee a date. (One possibility: He blows off Media Day and meets the team in Vermont.) "I think he will [be here]," Ainge said. "His agent believes he will." Payton is the only regular who is not in town. Ainge says he has not spoken to Payton, and Rivers said he "bumped into" Payton while visiting Las Vegas. "You know, what goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas," Rivers cracked. The coach added, "I don't see any reason why he couldn't come. He's working out every day and he's under contract to the Celtics. I put two and two together." Rivers added that he hoped Payton showed up with his legendary "mean streak" in that it would help the team as well as fellow point guards Delonte West and Marcus Banks.

* Rick Fox: His situation is being "negotiated," Ainge said, and should be finalized shortly. "He's not going to be with us," Ainge said. "He's not physically able to play basketball." Fox is under contract for this season. Still unknown is whether he will reach an agreement and retire, or will be carried on the roster, a la Chris Mills, to be used as future trade fodder. The downside to the latter is that he would have to take up a roster spot, and there doesn't appear to be any room.

* Roster: It is what it is. There will be no "camp guys" taken to Burlington, Vt., Monday and jettisoned at the end of the month. Without Fox, there are 16 bodies, including second-round pick Justin Reed and last year's April signee, Ernest Brown. Teams can carry only 15 players, so there's a bit of a math issue. Those things tend to get resolved.

* LaFrentz: Ainge and Rivers say the big man is doing fine. LaFrentz said he still feels soreness in his knee, which Ainge said is natural. "I played the last 18 years of basketball with tendinitis in my knees. I lived on anti-inflammatories," he said. "Is there pain? Yeah. But tendinitis is about pain management. He looks good."

* Davis: Both Ainge and Rivers were asked about Davis's me-first comments in a recent Globe article by Shira Springer in which Davis seemed to, again, not really get it. "I feel there's a chance we can get to him," Ainge said. "But I also understand all the things that come with him." Ainge again stressed Davis's agility, ability, age, midrange game, and overall potential as reasons for being patient. Ainge added, "I don't know which Ricky Davis is going to show up, but I'm encouraged. Someday, hopefully sooner than later, Ricky will get it." Both men minimized Davis blowing off a team meeting last year in Miami to go on a boat ride. Then-coach John Carroll didn't minimize it, but he's no longer around. Said Rivers, "Ricky wants to win on his terms. My job is to get him to win on our terms. If he doesn't accept that, then we've got problems." Rivers said he wasn't sure how he was going to deal with Davis, but seemed to understand what lay ahead. "Ricky has a target," he said. "He earned it. It's his job to get it off. Not mine."

* The roster: Said Ainge, "We have accumulated talent. We have more talent, although I can't say we're done." Ainge said a big difference this year is that he is getting phone calls. "Last year there was none. There was no interest in any of our players," he said, even though he traded away six of them, including three starters -- Antoine Walker, Tony Battie, and Eric Williams.

Everyone is optimistic at this time of year. There's a reason for that: no games have been played. But, unmistakably, Ainge is a lot more confident and comfortable this time, and a lot more satisfied with the coach he hired and the product that will be on the floor. 

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