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BOB RYAN

Ainge may not be able to wiggle out of this

The answer is, I don't know.

The question, of course, is, "Now what's Danny up to?"

I have spent all season defending Danny Ainge to the many naysayers who have questioned his thought process. I guess they think the Celtics should be winning 50 games, or something. I thought it was pretty obvious: Ainge was delivering on a campaign promise to remake the plodding, bombs-away Celtics he inherited into a dynamic, uptempo team. He had come up with a sensational draft in Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, and Delonte West. Kendrick Perkins was beginning to look like a keeper. We could now see the value of a healthy Raef LaFrentz. The Gary Payton thing was actually working out.

There have been two problems, both involving veterans. After receiving the big money, Mark Blount has been about 60 percent of the Mark Blount of a year ago. And then there was the resident star, who has played much of the season in a pout and who simply has not been willing to give his full support to the new way of doing things.

Is the team talented? Yes. Is the team mentally fragile? Yes. Is the team maddeningly inconsistent? Yes. But is the team essentially lovable and rootable? Oh, yes, absolutely.

So into this you bring Antoine Walker? I don't get it.

With this move, Antoine becomes a trivia item. Baseball buffs know that a catcher named Harry Chiti was once traded for a player to be named later. When the season was over, guess who the player to be named later was? Harry Chiti. Well, Antoine now falls into an auxiliary category. Not even a year and a half ago, Antoine Walker was the central figure in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks. Now he's boomeranged his way back to Boston. What gives?

If you recall, Ainge had a lot to say when he traded Antoine. The primary issue was supposed to be money. Antoine was looking for a maximum contract and the new director of basketball operations didn't think he was worth it. But it didn't end there. Ainge had made it clear when he was still broadcasting games for a living that he had no use for Antoine's basic game.

Pardon me, but has that game changed since we last saw him?

He is taking fewer threes, which is a good thing. They also say he has cut down on the Antoine wiggles, which would be even better. We can verify the 3-pointer thing by looking at the stat sheet. We'll have to accept the anecdotal evidence about the wiggles since the league hasn't allowed the Hawks anywhere near a national television crew this season.

I'm sure we're going to be fed the same old, same old. We'll be told about Antoine's rebounding and Antoine's passing and Antoine's versatility and Antoine's supposed leadership. The brass will undoubtedly go really hard on the leadership thing, saying now that Antoine's back, a miscast Paul Pierce can be officially relieved of any such responsibilities and can go back to being his second-banana self.

And there might be a smidgen of truth to that. Pierce most definitely did not want to lead, and he has not been the same player since Antoine left. But if you look a little closer, the truth is that Pierce has not been the same player since he was scapegoated after Team USA's failure in the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis. Any decline he's had is attributable to a lot more than the idea that he has missed Antoine Walker, on or off the floor. There are things going on in Pierce's head that have nothing to do with Walker.

So Antoine is back and now we will see again what a maddening player he is. On paper, he sounds like a first-team All-Star. He can score inside and out, he can hit open men, and he can rebound. Every once in a while it even plays out that way on the floor.

We will be reminded that he dribbles too much and has curious shot selection. We will be reminded that he is not particularly athletic and that he has marginal lift when operating in the post. He is most effective when he operates out of the post. The problem is that he can't operate effectively down there against the better players, only against the inferior ones. He doesn't really want to be down there, anyway. He wants to be outside, handling the basketball. He has a 4-man's body with a 3-man's disposition. He seems to have all these, you know, skills, but in the end, the package turns out to be far less than the sum of the parts far too often.

Finally, where does he fit into the running game? I hope the idea isn't supposed to be that he will be launching threes as a trailer on the fast break. Oh, that's right; the rebounding. Somehow, I don't recall Antoine being the master of the outlet pass.

Meanwhile, how would you like to be Payton? First, the guy is traded to the Celtics, a team not close to true contention, located 3,000 miles from home. He spends all season being a good soldier, all the while hoping he'll be dealt back to the West Coast. And where is he sent? Atlanta, the league's most forlorn and irrelevant franchise. I'd say it's 8-5 he doesn't report. What could possibly be in it for him?

Ainge traded Walker 16 months ago for very good reasons. Antoine has since played in Dallas and Atlanta, and all he has done is vindicate Ainge's original judgment. Bringing Antoine Walker back will make some 20-somethings and impressionable teens happy, but the rest of us are wondering just what this has to do with taking the Celtics where they need to go.

Danny, I can't defend you this time. You're now officially on your own.

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

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