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BOB RYAN

Excitement not running on empty

Memo to all you fallen-away Celtics fans: It's better. They lost a 100-99 game to the Denver Nuggets at the Fleet last night, but I'm still telling you that things are better.

I didn't say it's great, or that you should consider burning your precious tapes of the 1986 team, or that Ricky Davis is ever going to replace John Havlicek in your heart, but compared with the way it's been around here the past 12 years or so -- and, yes, that includes that bizarre little march to the Eastern Conference finals with the bombs away squad -- the basketball being offered by what is now nauseatingly referred to by the public address announcer as your Boston Celtics is far more entertaining than it's been since the Big Three were in their dotage and Reggie Lewis was torturing rival guards.

Doc Rivers said they were going to get up and down the floor, and they're actually doing it. The numbers don't lie. The Celtics have averaged 104 points over their last 10 games. The final score of the double-overtime triumph over the Clippers Monday night was 134-127; in other words, something Red Auerbach or Frank Ramsey would have recognized (it was 109-all at the end of regulation). There is now a reasonable chance when you come to a game, or turn on the television, that there will actually be some offense, and that it might be offense that isn't dependent on someone launching a 3-pointer.

"Other guys have talked about running," said Tom Heinsohn, "but this guy is the first one who's actually doing it. They are starting to have the idea of `fast break' imprinted on their foreheads."

Heinsohn has only been preaching the virtues of the running game, since, oh, when exactly was it that Larry Bird retired? The team didn't run much under Chris Ford, or under M.L. Carr, or under Rick Pitino, or under Jim O'Brien, or under John Carroll. The excuse was always that the personnel wasn't in place to implement a good running game. Heinsohn knew better. The slowest team in the world can run if it commits itself to the concept of immediate and constant transition. For a very long time, the Celtics have lacked the will to run. They just didn't believe in it.

At this point I should back up a bit. There is one other person involved in this running rebirth. He doesn't wear a uniform and he doesn't sit on the bench. But he is responsible for what's going on, starting with the selection of Rivers as the coach. I am speaking, of course, about Danny Ainge.

As I recall, one of the first things Ainge said when he was given the keys to the kingdom by Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca was that he wanted to construct a team that could get up and down the floor. That's the style he knew best as a player and that's the style he emphasized when he was coaching in Phoenix. You could easily argue he doesn't know any other way.

Aren't we lucky?

Well, I think so, anyway. Perhaps you don't. Perhaps you've been enamored by all those 72-70 games the NBA has been infested with the past 10 years or so. Perhaps you like coaches standing up, calling every play, choking the athletes, stifling their creativity. Wow. You must have thought you'd died and gone to Hoop Heaven the past decade or decade and a half.

But the rest of us were too busy dozing to pay much attention. The NBA from the mid-'90s on was agonizing for us to watch.

It's not just a matter of fast breaks. It's a matter of simply caring about offense at all. There's been so much preaching over the years about defense, defense, defense that it was easy to forget that the object of this game is to put the ball in the basket, not prevent someone else from doing so. Sure, there has to be a proper balance between the two in order for the sport to be played properly, but there can be no denying that over the past several years most coaches have been much happier when the other team had the ball than when their own team did.

The Celtics are not just a better running team than they've been in years. They are also a better passing team. "We're still a little up and down with the running game," Rivers acknowledged. "I can't say we're fully committed yet. But what I do like is our ball movement. That's what has me excited."

Something else has him pumped up. The Celtics have some exciting young players to offer. Rookie guard Tony Allen has become a valuable member of the cast. "He's probably our best athlete," noted Rivers. "He's an energy player. He seems to make things happen. Sometimes it's good, and when it isn't, that's just something we have to live with. But he has the toughness I love."

Al Jefferson continues to impress. The young Mississippian with the flypaper hands had a big evening against the Clippers, compiling 11 points and eight assists while fouling out in 22 action-packed minutes.

Jiri Welsch qualifies as a young player, and so does Davis, who is making Ainge look good. If everyone else played as well as Davis has this season, the team would be 15-6 or so, and not 9-12.

"The kids make me smile," Rivers declared. "I love where we're at, future-wise. Of course, I want to win now. But these kids do make me smile."

Those kids didn't lose last night's game. Truth is, they handed over a lead to the regulars in the fourth quarter. When Paul Pierce replaced Welsch with 6:15 to go, the Celtics led, 91-88. It wound up being one of those NBA games in which someone makes a shot (as someone doesn't execute on defense), and someone misses a shot (as someone does execute on defense). The former was Carmelo Anthony, who sank a foul-line jumper off a pick-and-roll with 3.6 seconds to go. The latter was Pierce, who missed a 21-foot drifter at the buzzer. That made it a great road win for the Nuggets and a tough home loss for the Celtics.

"On a scale of 1-10, we were probably about a 3 on offense, and we still scored 99," observed Rivers. "That's obviously not going to be our problem. We lost this game because of our defense "

The season is a quarter in the books, and Rivers has gotten things pretty well sorted out. "I am comfortable with this team," he said. "I kind of know what we can do. I've got a feel for the personalities, and that's more about the veterans, because they've been around. I'm starting to get a feel for the team, and they're getting a feel for each other, which is far more important."

Those of us who've been watching them are getting our own feel, and it's a positive one. It's not a great team, but it's a very intriguing team. I can't promise W's, but I can promise you won't be bored. Unless, of course, you yearn for the good old 72-70 days.

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

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