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BOB RYAN

Celtics need straight talk

Once upon a time, long ago and in what now seems like a galaxy, far, far away, the Boston Celtics were good, really good. Check that. They were great.

Championships followed championships, and when there weren't championships, there were losses deep in the playoffs and there were 50-win seasons replete with thrills. People would have fist fights over just how many Celtics players deserved to be on the All-Star team (six was getting a bit greedy).

Winning was simply expected, especially at home, and we were always amused to encounter some wanna-be early-round playoff foe whose fans were all atwitter because their team had gone something like 45-37, thereby making the guy running the team a candidate for Coach of the Year.

The Celtics would toy with them, usually in five games (Game 3 would always find their home crowd slightly maniacal), and life would assume its proper course.

Never, ever during those glorious years could any of us imagine a future scenario in which the Celtics would be approaching Christmas as the only team in David Stern's world that had yet to win two games in succession.

It's the gospel truth. The Raptors have done it. The Knicks have done it. The Hawks not only have done it, but actually have turned into something of a mini-force, having won four out of five before last night's loss. Twenty-nine of the league's 30 teams have done it; that is to say, everyone but your beloved Boston Celtics, who will have an opportunity to join that non-exclusive society with a victory over the Utah Jazz at the Gahden tonight.

Two straight would not seem to be much of a task, especially when you consider that the Celtics have played 14 of their first 24 at home. But everything is a struggle for this bunch, which is on the short list of the league's most underachieving teams.

In case the Celtics don't know, it is a general rule that only seriously bad teams go this far into the season without managing at least one two-game winning streak. A sampling of such woeful squads would include the 2000-2001 Bulls (15-67), who went to games 29 and 30; the 1996-97 Grizzlies, (14-68), who went to games 43 and 44; the 2000-2001 Wizards (19-63), who went to games 31 and 32; the 1967-68 Rockets (15-67), who went to games 42 and 43; the 1980-81 Mavericks (15-67), who went to games 47 and 48; and even the 1996-97 Celtics (15-67), who lurched along without a two-game winning streak until games 30 and 31.

There is a further level of futility. It's where you would find those truly awful Dallas teams of '92-93 and '93-94, the first of which went a dizzying 11-71 and didn't win two straight until games 62 and 63; and the second of which went 13-69, winning its first two in succession in games 47 and 48. And those with long memories are hollering, ''Hey! What about the '72-73 76ers, the losingest team of them all [9-73]?" That's a fair question, and, yes, they certainly kept their fans in suspense, waiting until games 63 and 64 (with a record of 5-58) before delivering a two-game conquest of Milwaukee and Detroit. Those Sixers even stretched it out to five of seven before losing their final 15.

That brings us to the granddaddy of all modern losers. In the last 40 years, there only has been one team so spectacularly consistent in its losing ways that it found a way to maneuver through an 82-game season without once winning two games in succession. It should come as no remote surprise to NBA aficionados to hear that the team in question was one of Donald T. Sterling's finest. Other teams have lost more total games. But none have been so deft at avoiding momentum as the 1986-87 Los Angeles Clippers, whose entire victory haul consisted of 12 well-placed one-game winning ''streaks." An amusing subplot: among the chaps who suffered through this ignominious campaign was our own Cedric Maxwell (well, 35 games of it, anyway).

The Clippers won games 2, 4, 6, 19, 36, 42, 44, 48, 51, 54, 61, and 68. You'll note that little warm run in late January and early February when they won four out of nine. There was even a heart-stopping two out of three (the loss a 124-120 OT killer to San Antonio).

So, Celtics. IS THIS THE KIND OF COMPANY YOU WISH TO KEEP?

It's hard not to win two in a row sometime. Occasionally a team will exhaust all its good stuff early, somehow losing the formula. That was the case with both the 1989-90 Nets (17-65) and the expansion 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies (15-67), who each won their first two games before settling into their true losing ways. But with the exception of the aforementioned Clippers -- and negative Clipper records someday will occupy an entire vault at NBA headquarters -- all the horrible teams researched from 1965 on have managed to win two in a row at least once, and most of them have taken care of this necessary business before game 25, which is where the Celtics find themselves tonight.

The Celtics would not seem to fit the profile of a team incapable of winning two straight. We do not see this as a team en route to a sub-20 win season. I mean, they're halfway there already. But right now they are not a good club and it's getting high time to hold someone accountable.

Stop with the youth thing. The key players on this team are Paul Pierce (28), Ricky Davis (26, with seven-plus years of experience), Mark Blount (30), and Raef LaFrentz (29). In crunch time, one of them is going to have the ball. Of course, there are many young players around. If this team is going to accomplish anything this season, it will need help from Kendrick Perkins (21), Delonte West (22), and, of course, Al Jefferson (21 in two weeks). Throw in Marcus Banks (24), Orien Greene (23), Justin Reed (23), and Ryan Gomes (23), if you like. Yes, that's a bunch of young players. But it is the older four who are expected to make the big shots, get the big rebounds, execute the key defensive stops, and make the proper decisions in any stressful situation. And none of them have youth as an excuse.

Right now no one can ask for more in terms of production from Pierce, who is playing the best all-around ball of his career. We can't quarrel with the Davis contribution, either. Blount appears to have regained a pulse, although he still seems to regard rebounding as an imposition on his time. One big game against Houston aside, LaFrentz has to know he has been a drag. He must pick it up. As a unit, they all must. Stats don't win games. Playing basketball properly wins games, and thus far the Celtic whole is far smaller than the sum of its parts.

The Celtics were handed a gift schedule, and they did not take proper advantage of their good fortune. They have squandered their opportunity to take control of the Atlantic Division. The cold reality of their conference situation is this: Detroit, Miami, Indiana, Cleveland, and Milwaukee can all be considered playoff locks right now. That leaves the Celtics currently staring up at Chicago (I was close to making them a lock, as well), Philadelphia, and New Jersey, while finding themselves in the same basic straits as Washington. Let's say we concede a spot to Chicago. That leaves four teams fighting for two spots. After watching this team for seven weeks, are you comfortable with its chances to be one of those two?

To paraphrase Jim Mora, ''You're talking about the playoffs?" Let's see them win two in a row. Then we'll talk.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com

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