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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Candy Man wouldn't leave the right taste

Minnesota's Michael Olowokandi gets hooked in the mouth by the Celtics Brian Scalabrine, as he battles two Boston frountcourt players who could possibly be his teammates soon,
Minnesota's Michael Olowokandi gets hooked in the mouth by the Celtics Brian Scalabrine, as he battles two Boston frountcourt players who could possibly be his teammates soon, (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

I went surfing with Michael Olowokandi once. It was 1998, and he was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and I was a reporter for Sports Illustrated. We met in Hawaii, where Olowokandi was attending Pete Newell's Big Man Camp. Since the story was about Olowokandi taking on new challenges, SI photographer Robert Beck thought it would be cool to shoot the big man on a surfboard, negotiating the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Beck grabbed his waterproof camera, rented three boards, and off we paddled, some 70 yards offshore. The waves were kind of big. Suddenly it became apparent to me it wasn't going to be as easy as it looked on ''Hawaii Five-O." Something else also quickly became apparent to me: Olowokandi looked terrified.

''I wasn't worried," he assured me last night, before the Celtics-Timberwolves game. ''It's not as bad as you make it sound."

Easy to say eight years later. I'm telling you: It sure looked as if Michael Olowokandi couldn't swim.

Turns out, he couldn't really rebound, either. I mistakenly thought he was going to have a huge impact in the NBA, because he was so eager to learn that summer. He was a raw talent who hadn't played much basketball, yet it was clear he was extremely intelligent and, at that time, very hard-working.

He was also young. When you are young, anything -- including surfing in the Pacific -- seems possible.

It never came together for the 7-footer. He was a major disappointment with the Clippers, and now the Timberwolves, where he comes off the bench for a team in desperate need of an inside presence. The Celtics have contemplated acquiring Olowokandi, and shedding Mark Blount and his multiyear contract in the process, chiefly because Olowokandi's contract, which pays him $5.9 million, is up at the end of the season. That means he would provide salary cap space and maneuverability, which would help the Celtics next season.

Next season. Tired of hearing it? You are not alone. Boston's fan base is growing weary of looking to the future. They want results now, and they aren't getting them, because this team is young and mistake-prone and soft defensively. That causes them to lose tight games, which causes further fan angst, which further heightens the fact that we are coming up on 20 years since this franchise has won a championship, which further rachets up the heat on the boss, Danny Ainge, and his coach, Doc Rivers.

The most recent war cry is these Celtics are underachieving.

That's where you lose me. The Celtics are about where I expected them to be. When you take a team that won 45 games, subtract two of its most seasoned veterans (Antoine Walker and Gary Payton), and add yet another draft pick that isn't old enough to rent a car (Gerald Green), did you really expect it would be an upgrade? I'm not suggesting Boston should have held onto Walker or Payton, but without adding any other veterans to the mix, which they should have done, they were bound to take a step back. I'll never forget the fixed, forced smile on Rivers's face when Green's name was called on draft night. Doc knew the kid was two, maybe three years away from helping him. In the life of an NBA coach, that's an eternity.

Meanwhile, Ainge continues to dial up Seattle and offer Green, in hopes of satisfying his obsession for the Sonics' Robert Swift. The word out of the Sonics' offices continues to be the same: no thanks.

The sobering statistic that rankles Ainge is the fact his team is 5-13 in games decided by 5 points or fewer. ''I don't think there's another team in the league that's lost more than eight games [by 5 or fewer]," he said. ''I'm not saying we should be 10 games over .500, but collectively as a team, I'm disappointed in some of the results."

Most nights, Al Jefferson hasn't been on the floor for those crucial minutes. He was averaging just over 17 minutes a game because of his defensive struggles, even as chants of ''Play the kids" grow more insistent. Someday Jefferson might be a 20-and-10 guy, but at the moment he's a young player with enormous potential who isn't consistent enough to earn major minutes. Rivers remains steadfast in his resolve not to hand Big Al time without justification.

He's right.

''He's got to earn it," Rivers said. ''No. 1, it makes the player more accountable. No. 2, if you don't do it that way, then you get guys saying, 'Why should I work so hard? I'm going to play anyway.' And, No. 3, you'll lose every guy on your team that has been busting his butt but doesn't play.

''I understand how people feel about Al. I'm a fan. Young players in the NBA are like backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Everyone wants to see them play -- but they look a lot better when they're not playing."

Last night, Jefferson banged his way onto the floor for crunch time. He and Kendrick Perkins played the final five minutes of a tight game and made major contributions down the stretch of a 103-96 win, as captain Paul Pierce finished off the Timberwolves with free throws and perimeter daggers in the final minute.

You wonder how much longer Pierce will wait for Jefferson to develop into an All-Star forward. No. 34 has been a poised, professional, agreeable superstar who is having the best season of his career. There are suitors everywhere, but trading him now would set Boston back to ground zero. Having said that, if Pierce respectfully asks to be moved, will the team comply? And if it doesn't, will it get ugly?

Rivers knows there's a growing number of folks who'd like to see him dumped instead. He is human; he wonders what his future holds, even as a member of the ownership group stops by and offers his support, as one of them did yesterday.

Ainge, under fire himself, can sense the negativity that is starting to envelop his coach.

''I'm very aware of it, and I think it's so unfair," Ainge said. ''We're missing free throws at the end of the game. We're missing block outs at the end of the game. It's a different player at the wrong time at a crucial moment. I'm not saying the coach has nothing to do with any of that -- we all have to share in what's gone on. But to blame him for that stuff . . . people talk about Doc's rotations. How can you set a rotation with a team that's 14-23? With that kind of record aren't you supposed to try new combinations that might work?"

The continued improvement of Delonte West and Perkins is good news, yet will they ever be front-line, impact players who will win you a title? The inability of the veterans to convert in crunch time remains the bad news, and at times, the defense is appalling.

Michael Olowokandi can't fix that for them. These young Celtics need time. But how much? The clock is ticking, for Ainge and Rivers -- and Pierce, who isn't getting any younger.

Last night, all was right with the Celtics. There were cheers, not jeers, that rattled off the Garden rafters. But tomorrow is a new day for this young team, and no one is ever sure just what that means.

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

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