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Celtics facing tough guest list

WALTHAM -- There are times when Doc Rivers can peek ahead to the next few games and feel a spring in his step, even with the team he has. Then there are times like the present, when the next few games might produce a new name for his team: Boston Celtics, Special Victims Unit.

Memphis is in town tonight, followed by the NBA champion Spurs Friday and the Rockets Sunday. There then is a road contest against NBA runner-up Detroit, followed by a home game the next night against Seattle.

Four teams from the Western Conference, all of them playoff teams last season. And the redoubtable Pistons. Relief finally arrives a week from Friday with the arrival of the D-League Raptors.

''Every team we play [in this stretch] is really good," Rivers said yesterday following practice. ''But [the games] are at home [with the exception of the Pistons]. I do look ahead. I know what lies ahead. But my focus isn't so much on who we're playing as to how we're playing and how can I make this team better. And I think we are improving. I can see it."

With Rivers focusing on the here and now with the Green and White, here, then, at no additional cost, is a quick Cook's tour of the rest of this short homestand:

Memphis (tonight): Rivers's first NBA head coach, Mike Fratello, is working on his first full season with Memphis. The two strong-willed individuals often cracked heads in Atlanta, but Rivers now says, ''He made me nuts at times, but he made me a better player." A benefit for the Celtics: The Grizzlies played last night, at home, beating Seattle, 94-69, so there is the possibility of late-game fatigue. The Grizzlies overhauled their roster last summer, getting rid of, or losing, Bonzi Wells (who has since ripped Fratello) along with James Posey, Stromile Swift, and Jason Williams. ''Mike got rid of guys he didn't want to coach," Rivers said. But Memphis is still pretty good. ''They're a talented group," said Paul Pierce. ''They added [Damon] Stoudamire and Eddie Jones, guys who've been around the block and know what they're going. And they've got a potential All-Star in [Pau] Gasol." The teams split each of the last two years.

San Antonio (Friday): The NBA champs will have prepped for this one with visits to Chicago (an OT win Monday) and Charlotte (tonight). Unless Tim Duncan gets held up by the State Police in North Carolina for nonpayment of a Wake Forest parking ticket, he is scheduled to be in Boston -- and that cannot be construed to be a good thing for the Celtics. Duncan has never lost to the Celtics since he came into the NBA in 1997. The current San Antonio winning streak over the Celtics is 15 games (it's 14-0 with Duncan), and the Spurs have won 21 of the last 22 meetings. The Spurs appear to be even better this year with the additions of Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, and Fabricio Oberto. But they probably could roll out four guys from their 1996-97 team (Dominique Wilkins was their leading scorer on that 20-62 mess) and put in Duncan and still win.

Houston (Sunday): The Rockets were a lot of people's pick to move up into the elite of the West with the offseason arrival of Swift, Derek Anderson, and even Rafer Alston. Alas, Tracy McGrady's back is acting up and he's a rather critical fellow for coach Jeff Van Gundy. Without him, Houston lost to New Orleans at home, 91-84. The Rockets said initially that T-Mac might be out for as long as three weeks. But now he's listed as day-to-day, although his goal now is simply to accompany the team on a five-game trip that begins tomorrow in Miami. In addition to the possibility of not seeing T-Mac, the Celtics also catch a break in that the Rockets will be playing Saturday night in New Jersey. Oh yeah, Houston also has this big guy, Yao Ming. He's pretty good, too.

Rivers said he and basketball operations chief Danny Ainge went to the Patriots-Colts game Monday night. Ainge, according to Rivers, attracted some attention with his ''Space Jam" jacket. As for the coach? ''I left at halftime," he said. Then, realizing that might look as if he gave up on the Patriots, he added, ''I always do that. You can beat the traffic and then watch the fourth quarter at home." . . . Al Jefferson missed his second day of practice to attend to family matters in Mississippi. He is due to be back for tonight's game.

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