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BOB RYAN

Surprisingly, 'Glove' has been perfect fit

You know who's been great all year?

Gary Payton, that's who.

I'll give you the full disclosure bit. I didn't want him. The whole thing made no sense to me on any level. I didn't think he had much left, and he certainly didn't want to be here. He's a West Coast guy with a family in California, so what was in it for him? It's not like the Celtics are on the verge of contention. After yesterday's 108-103 triumph over the entertaining Washington Wizards at the Fleet, they're still three wins shy of breaking even.

But if any of us doubted his sheer professionalism, we now know better. He has been, in my judgment, the team's most valuable player, and he proved it again yesterday. In a game filled with rampant athleticism on both sides, no one had a bigger winning impact than the 36-year-old point guard with the no-frills game.

You can imagine the Celtics making do without anyone else, but not Gary Payton. How could you possibly replace what's up in that head?

So sympathize with Doc Rivers, who had a mild pregame scare. "With Gary, you don't know how his legs are feeling," said the mentor. "When I walked in, he was seeing a doctor before the game. I almost passed out. I didn't know what it was all about. It wasn't anything serious. I think his knee was swollen."

"I've just got to keep myself right," Payton explained. "If I feel something wrong, I'll get it checked."

Mr. Payton had his checkup and then immediately began to abuse Steve Blake, who had been thrust into the starting lineup in place of the ailing Gilbert Arenas. Payton obviously thought he could do something off the dribble against Blake, who is 12 years younger. Payton's three first-quarter baskets were a runner in the lane, a little running hook, and another penetrating runner in the lane. These moves were efficient and economical, with none launched by between-the-legs dribbles. Payton just put the ball on the floor and attacked.

As far as old-school NBA point guards go, Gary Payton is pretty much it. Even Steve Nash needs a dab of mustard every now and then. But Gary Payton never has, and never will.

"I've never been the flashy type," he said. "I've always had a basic game. I've got that little hook and I make my passes. I don't do the flashy stuff, the crossover dribbles."

The great revelation is the way he has fit in so effortlessly with Rivers's preferred running style. No one expected a 36-year-old guard to be orchestrating fast breaks, but that's what Payton has done, and it doesn't stop there. If you fall asleep on him, he will gladly take it coast-to-coast on you.

"The running has been great," he declared. "I'm just doing what I have to do. I like the way Doc has been using me. I play. I get my rest, and then I come in and reenergize. It's been great for me."

His numbers are solid. Rivers is employing him for 33 minutes a game. He is averaging just under 13 points while shooting a healthy 47 percent from the floor. He is averaging 6.5 assists per. He's had single-game highs of 27 points and 11 assists.

If he is no longer the player who performed in nine All-Star games while being first-team All-Defensive nine times, that's not the point. On a team with a lot of exciting young talents, plus one prime-of-life star, he provides irreplaceable wisdom, not to mention expertise in areas the others can only fantasize about. He is a security blanket for the coach.

Rivers's biggest problem with Payton is trying to manage his time. There are many nights when Doc must think, "If I had him in there, we wouldn't be screwing up right now," but then Doc remembers that Payton is 36 and there is a game tomorrow night, and perhaps two more in the three days following. That, not significantly diminished skills, is the issue with Payton being 36.

Doc sits there in the fourth quarter and waits to pull the trigger. He did so yesterday with 6:30 remaining and the Wizards in possession of an 89-87 lead. At that point, Payton had been sitting for 7 minutes 20 seconds, during which time the Celtics had been outscored, 16-10.

With Payton back in the game, the Celtics began to get better shots. They also tightened up their defense, although it would be hard to make a good case for that, with the way Larry Hughes (33 points) and Antawn Jamison (29) were knocking down shots. But the Celtics were clearly the beneficiaries of Payton's presence. And let the record show that their last basket, a hoop that made it 103-100 with 1:05 to play, was a nice right-to-left drifter artfully submitted by one Gary Payton.

He finished the day with 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting. You also feel as comfortable with him taking a big shot as anyone on the team.

According to Payton, he is about to be given more responsibility. "From now on, I'm going to make more of the calls in the fourth quarter," Payton said. "I'll be able to get everyone involved."

Whatever his deep, private thoughts about the circumstance in which he finds himself, Payton has said and done all the right things since coming to Boston. He has led by both word and deed. After helping provide yesterday's victory with the latter, he switched gears to help secure more victories with the former. "We can't win one, and then go and lose three," he pointed out. "So we need to put a couple of these together."

His celebrated bombast often obscured the fact that he is a mortal lock Hall of Fame player who has a game that may never be seen again. Now here's something I never thought I'd say: It has been a pleasure to have Gary Payton in our town.

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

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