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BOB RYAN

Unreliable is what they are

So how did you enjoy that 74-day Celtics season?

The ledger indicates that Game 1 was a 98-95 home loss to the 76ers Nov. 3, but the reality is far different. In the minds of Joe Average Sports Fan, the local professional basketball season began Feb. 24, when the Antoine II Era opened for business.

Antoine Walker remains one of the most controversial Boston athletes of our time. He departed here as the most polarizing player in Celtics history, and when he returned he immediately made the Celtics Topic A, not only on WEEI and WWZN, but also in homes, offices, and barrooms across the area. And the Celtics started winning, thus generating more hoop talk than we've heard since the 2002 Eastern Conference finals.

With May not being a hot baseball month, with the Patriots beyond the draft and still far from training camp, and with the Bruins being an abstract, the Celtics could have had the town at their disposal for another couple of weeks. All they had to do was defeat an Indiana Pacers team that, however gritty, really isn't very good. All they had to do was win a Game 2, 5, or 7 at home. All they had to do was marry their talent to a little team concept and they, not the Pacers, would be in suburban Detroit today preparing for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

I usually abhor the simplicity inherent in the famous Bill Parcells statement, "You are what your record says you are," because, in the context of many a regular season, that is not true. Many factors beyond a team's control go into the fashioning of its record. But in this case the Celtics are what their 2005 playoff record says they are. They are deserving first-round losers. They have talent, yes, but they are utterly and completely unreliable.

In times of stress, the Celtics cannot be relied upon to be a team, especially at the offensive end of the floor. This was never more graphically evident than Saturday night, when the Pacers assumed the role of the "How-Tos" and the Celtics assumed the role of the "How-Not-Tos." It would be difficult to imagine a team playing uglier basketball than the Celtics did, as they combined inefficient one-on-one halfcourt basketball with inefficient open-floor basketball, and then spiced the plot by playing defense with all the energy of an over-50 squad. Throw in more classless behavior, and the result was being outscored by 27, at home, in the most important game of the season. Thank God they were only playing the Pacers. If they played like that against the Suns they might have been outscored by 50.

"[Indiana] got more and more confident and I thought we hung our heads way too early," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I thought we lost some trust. You go in knowing that with a team that has just been put together that that could happen. I told you guys before the game that if I had one fear, that was it."

A team that has just been put together.I hope Doc's not trying to pin the Celtics' disorganization in this crucial game on the fact that this was only the 30th game in which Walker had been playing for the team. These are true veteran guys. First of all, we know that Paul Pierce and Walker are supposed to know how to play with each other. Gary Payton has been around a bit. Raef LaFrentz is 29. Even Ricky Davis, though still only 25, is an experienced player. Anyway, wasn't the integration of the supposedly multi-skilled Walker supposed to augment the skills of the other players?

Walker is said to be a creative passer. In 87 minutes of play in Games 6 and 7 he had two assists, and the reason is there was no team offensive concept on display. In the midst of all his dribbling, he will hit cutters. But there were no cutters. The offense consisted of Walker going one-on-one as everyone else watched, Pierce going one-on-one as everyone else watched, Payton going one-on-one as everyone else watched, and Davis going one-on-one as everyone else watched. LaFrentz was left to fend for himself. A man as skilled as LaFrentz never should go scoreless in an NBA game and he did it twice in this series. Delonte West probably should have shot the ball more, but he is a polite rookie who automatically defers to his elders. Next year he will be more assertive.

Back to Antoine for a minute. All his strengths and liabilities were on display in this series. He remains a curiously unathletic player whose lift, never great, almost completely has disappeared at age 28. Against most teams, he is at the offensive mercy of his 3-pointer and his funky in-between game. He is still a good rebounder and still should be an effective passer. Then there's the whole locker room lightning rod business I now realize has some merit. But what is the monetary worth of this package? Most people say $6 million annually, tops. It will be interesting to see if Antoine is one of those people.

Now, what about Pierce? He is the team's most skilled offensive player, he is perhaps the best rebounding two guard in the league, and he can do things no one else on the team can do. But he has gotten just plain weird. Can anyone get to him to see just what his problem is? He started the season in a funk and he ended it with that ludicrous display in Game 6 and a dud of a Game 7. How far can a team go if he is its best player? That's a very serious question.

Meanwhile, Rivers has to bear a little responsibility here. If not him, then one of the six assistants they have sitting on the bench -- Geez, how did Red ever manage? -- is responsible for the offense. Doc talked about "sets" following Game 6. Did you notice many "sets?" Perhaps one-on-one isolation stuff is now officially a "set." And don't even speak about their scary play in the open floor. Nothing short of a five-on-none was a sure 2.

Here's something I do know. Al Jefferson is playing a lot next year and he will get the ball. "I know we need low-post scoring," says executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "But it's sitting on the bench." West likewise will play a lot. These are both cheering thoughts, because the kids were not the problem. The fact remains that if the veteran corp remains intact (Payton excepted), the same personalities who couldn't quite develop that "trust" in each other Rivers was talking about will still be in business.

Why should we think they'll be any more reliable next year?

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


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