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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Labor of Glove

Payton's play, savvy may be key to Celtics' success

WALTHAM -- This is where Gary Payton comes in.

The Celtics blew Game 2 of their opening-round playoff series against Indiana because they forgot to stick with what worked in Game 1: forcing tempo off a miss, good ball movement, high defensive energy. When you hear players saying they "relaxed" during crunch time, you've got a problem. The Celtics need a strong, stable veteran to make sure that doesn't happen again, and the guy who has been around the longest and gone the furthest in the postseason is prepared to fill that role.

Gary Payton as the voice of reason? Pretty interesting concept, you've got to admit. In his day, Payton was a trash-talking, gum-snapping, pot-stirring instigator who backed up his bravado with All-Star defense and crafty, opportunistic offensive skills. He and former Sonics coach George Karl were often a combustible -- and flammable -- combination, but you know you have the respect of your peers when they nickname you "The Glove."

Payton no longer has the same impact on the floor, but he still has his hand on the pulse of the game, and if the Celtics want to advance to the next round, they'd be wise to heed the old man's advice. Payton has dispensed his share of it over the past 48 hours, particularly to the under-23 set, who were a big part of the solution in Game 1, but also a part of the problem in Game 2.

"I think the young guys have some mixed emotions," reported Payton yesterday, before departing to Indianapolis with his teammates. "When we're winning Game 1, and we're up, 10 or 15 points, they're taking shots. When we're down, 3 or 4, in Game 2, they're not taking shots. We had a couple of guys who looked like they were scared on the video."

Payton (4 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers) wasn't at his best in Game 2 either, but his issues have nothing to do with being afraid. He was frustrated the offense broke down into the same isolation jumpers that have haunted this club on and off all season, and he didn't do enough to buck that trend. He logged 35 minutes and, like a number of other starters, looked wilted down the stretch.

But Payton was in no mood yesterday to listen to anyone question coach Doc Rivers for his substitution pattern (or lack thereof). The blood-thirsty shut-ins want to know why rookie Al Jefferson wasn't on the floor in that fourth quarter, and Payton is happy to explain it.

"When Al Jefferson gets the ball and he's immediately double-teamed, and he's a little confused, and he still shoots it instead of kicking it back out first, then you can understand why he didn't play more," Payton said. "He hasn't been in that situation before. He's never seen the kind of coverage he got [Monday] night. It tells you he's not ready for it.

"It's so funny to me. One of the young guys said after watching the film, `We've got to value possessions.' They saw it for themselves on the videotape. They saw how one or two possessions can lose a basketball game for you.

"I'm glad they're seeing that now. Maybe they'll take our practices a little more seriously when we're working on the end of the [shot] clock."

The Celtics have been growing up on the job since October, and Payton, one of their primary tutors, likes the progress he's seen in Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins. But the most pleasant surprise this season, he said, has been the maturation of Ricky Davis.

"I was curious to see if he was a guy I could get along with," Payton admitted. "I'm telling you right now, he's one of the greatest people I've been around. He gets a little fiery, but I can't degrade him for that. That's how he gets hyped up for the game. You can't tell him not to be who he is, but you can tell him to do it a little differently."

Davis provoked the Pacers with remarks about a sweep at halftime of Game 1. He denied making those comments after Game 2, when Pacers sniper Reggie Miller mentioned them specifically, and it became apparent Davis's words had come back to bite him.

"You know how that is," Payton said. "He's a young guy who got himself backed into a corner.

"I didn't see or hear what he said [in Game 1]. If I did, I would have told him it wasn't a good thing. I plan to talk to him about it on the plane. Whether he said it or didn't say it, what I'd tell him is it's OK to do something like that, but wait until we're up, 3-0, and there's four minutes left in Game 4. Not when we're only up, 1-0."

Payton will have plenty to say to the kingpins of this offense, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, if they fail to adhere to the principles of coach Doc Rivers's motion offense in Game 3. In the final seven minutes Monday night, the Celtics reverted to isolation basketball and it yielded only 10 points in the fourth quarter.

"As soon as the ball left my hands, it seemed like it was going up," Payton said. "A lot of guys were pressing themselves to make it happen. They started running their own stuff. They were in the mind-set of, `I'm going to win this.' "

For those who expected Payton's personality to be overbearing and, at times, disruptive this season (OK, that was me), his elder statesman persona has been the most refreshing part of 2004-05. He has been a model citizen and a huge factor in the resurgence of this team. The time has come for him to take that responsibility one step further.

Apparently, The Glove still fits.

Now let's see if Gary Payton will wear it.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.


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