boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

Fans aren't mailing it in

Things happen on the field or on the court (someday, perhaps, even on the ice), and sports fans respond. That's the way it should be.

One thing has been made very clear to me these past four days: We still have a basketball-loving constituency out there, yearning to have a team it can embrace without reservation. Right now, the Boston Celtics are not that team, at least not yet. People may love the institution known as the Boston Celtics, but a majority of those around here who profess an interest in professional basketball were very troubled by what they saw in the just-concluded series with the Indiana Pacers.

How does this affect management? Frankly, I don't know. I would be amazed if both ownership and upper management -- i.e. Danny Ainge -- aren't somewhat conflicted right now. The team, as constituted, is OK, but it is far from an upper-echelon squad. Contending for the championship is far closer to being a fantasy than it is to being a realistic hope, and trying to decide just what steps the team must take to convert that fantasy into reality is not an easy thing. The team doesn't stink, but the team is flawed, and it is led on the floor by people in whom the public seems to have very little faith.

This was, at its best, the most entertaining team of the post-Big Three era, and I am specifically including the bombs-away bunch that led the New Jersey Nets by a 2-1 count in the 2002 Eastern Conference finals. They ran more than the last 10 Celtics teams combined and they played well coming from behind. These Celtics won 22 games after trailing at some point in the fourth quarter during the regular season. That speaks to something good about them.

There was a lot to like, starting with -- whoever thought anyone would say this? -- Ricky Davis. Ricky Davis proved to be a very useful player. He channeled that tremendous energy into countless positive performances and he would have been a worthy recipient of the NBA's Sixth Man Award. It was almost enough to make me think that perhaps Danny has something in that brain wave guru he hired, after all.

Gary Payton really did play surprisingly well, and Raef LaFrentz demonstrated on many occasions just what his worth is. The problem remains that he is a pilot fish making a living off the marquee guys, and thus he can be included out of the offense very easily, as we discovered during his two scoreless games in the Indiana series.

The young players got people excited, and that even included Marcus Banks, who, if nothing else, can defend. A lot of praise has been heaped on Al Jefferson, and it's all deserved. He is on his way to being a capital-S Star. Delonte West might as well get used to the idea that he will be called "solid" his entire career. Tony Allen likewise will be a 10- or 12-year player. He just needs to hire someone to feed him the ball while he attempts 1,000 jumpers a day during the offseason. (I hope Justin Reed won't be offended if we table him.)

Mark Blount's season was a disaster. Did he get the big money and then mentally retire? Did he just never get comfortable with Doc Rivers? Who ever would have believed he'd wind up being a nightly DNP? But I kind of think someone will take a chance on rehabilitating a 7-footer with Blount's skill.

OK, what about the two stars?

The names of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce are very much on the lips of Celtics fans these days, and what people are saying isn't very flattering. It seems that the Indiana series was something of a public referendum, and the e-mailing voters have decided against them, especially Pierce.

Sample:

"Toine and Pierce typify the immature trash-talking attitude that a host of out-of-touch-with-the-world NBAers display."

"You've probably had a lot of mail about what Pierce did in Game 6 . . . The thing that troubles me the most is that I really, really feel Paul would do the same thing in the future. I don't think he really gets it."

"The worst thing about the Pierce meltdown was the fact that with his behavior during the last 12.9 seconds of Game 6, and in the postgame, he probably rendered himself untradeable."

"Pierce, in my mind, has all the skills those other guys had with maybe even more what we call today 'athleticism,' but something's missing. I think it's a combination of maturity, character and integrity which translates into self-control."

"I was an assistant coach at [X] High School . . . Before Saturday's game, [my brother] asked me what I thought. I said, 'If you came to one of our games and I told you the two best players throw temper tantrums at crunch time and get tossed from the game, what would you have said?' My brother replied, 'I'd say those guys are jerks and are going nowhere.' "

"Paul is what his record says he is -- an unreliable player with a losing playoff record."

"I'm still in shock after witnessing the most horrendous Game 7 in franchise history in person. I haven't seen a team play with less class since the Bad Boys of Detroit in the late '80s. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise to most of us that a visiting team clinches the series on the road in what turned out to be a very unusual series."

"What is not being said -- perhaps because it is too difficult to admit -- is that Danny Ainge traded the wrong superstar. There are plenty of times when I've hated Antoine's game . . . but compare that to Pierce: He says the right thing when interviewed but he fails the fundamental test of superstardom. He does not make his teammates better than what they are. He pouts on and off the court, he does not carry himself the way someone who is the captain of the team should. He is a supremely talented basketball player. But the whole is less than the sum of his parts . . . The problem is not the young guys; it is one of the 'old' guys who has never proven that he can grow up."

To Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca, and Danny Ainge, I say this: The public seems to get it. Having waited this long for a real winner, they seem prepared to wait a little longer if it means that faux leaders such as Walker and Pierce must be shipped out while the team is being turned over to the likes of Jefferson and West, young players who seem to have both their heads and their hearts in the right place.

One e-mailer even went so far as to propose a Pierce-for-Ron Artest trade that actually makes sense for both teams.

It's heartening to know that so many caring, thoughtful people abound, and that they all aren't plastering Sinatra onto their iPods. Thus: "Young fans today appreciate selfless, hard play as much as those of the Russell/Bird/Cousy era did. The fans have been constant in their good and bad ways."

That's a pretty good way of summing up the 2004-05 Boston Celtics. There was good, there was bad, and Messrs. Pierce and Walker are classic personal microcosms of the entire situation. Danny Ainge has an interesting offseason ahead of him. The good news for the Celtics is that a whole lot of people will be paying attention to how Danny goes about his business.

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


IN TODAY'S GLOBE
online extras
SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
   
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months