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A bit out of joint

Szczerbiak's knee suddenly a concern

WALTHAM -- With his left knee swollen and unable to bend beyond a 90-degree angle, Wally Szczerbiak sat and watched Celtics practice yesterday. He left the team practice facility uncertain whether he will play tonight against LeBron James and the Cavaliers at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Asked what would be the deciding factor, Szczerbiak said, ''Whether I can run." He couldn't do that yesterday, necessitating a second day of rest and therapy.

''It's going to be one of those things where I'll see how the knee feels," he said. ''Hopefully, it bounces back and the swelling gets out of there."

Anyone who has followed Szczerbiak knows he wants to be on the floor at all times. He made his Celtics debut on an empty stomach after a sleepless night, repeatedly staring at coach Doc Rivers during timeouts and essentially demanding to enter the game against the Kings. If he can't take the court tonight, it would be a strong indication of just how painful the knee has become.

The 46 minutes Szczerbiak logged Sunday night in a 102-94 victory over Orlando probably made the most recent flareup much worse.

''It felt good up until about seven or eight minutes left in the fourth quarter," said Szczerbiak, who is averaging 39.1 minutes with the Celtics. ''Then, it just started buckling and catching and grabbing.

''The doctor looked at it Monday and it was really swollen, really hot."

According to Szczerbiak, team doctor Brian McKeon did not give him a specific diagnosis, though the possibility of arthroscopic surgery after the season was raised. Szczerbiak hopes rest, physical therapy, and strengthening the leg will decrease the swelling and pain. If that doesn't work, a cortisone shot might be in order at some point.

But Szczerbiak doesn't want to think that far ahead. He said he believes the emotional and physical stress of the trade caused the knee problems. Once his family moves from Minneapolis to Boston during the All-Star break, he hopes his life and his knee will calm down. Szczerbiak originally planned to spend the break moving his family with a cross-country drive, but the knee forced him to make alternative plans.

''We're going to try to figure out a way to fly the kids, dogs, the whole shebang, over break," he said.

''Everything has been crazy in my life. Hopefully, that's part of the problem and it's not something bigger.

''I've never had problems with this knee ever. I don't know why it's flared up. It's been something we've been dealing with ever since the trade. It was starting to really feel good, 32 minutes was good for it. The first 35, 38 minutes was good against Orlando.

''Then, at the end of the game, it just buckled. It locked up. I was almost going to take myself out of the game. I was able to just get through the end of the game."

Szczerbiak had part of the lateral meniscus removed from his left knee nine years ago, when he was playing for Miami (Ohio). An MRI during his trade physical picked up something in the knee. Szczerbiak wonders whether a couple of hip pointers early this season, a couple hard knocks, have caused the swelling.

''Any time you're pounding away for nine years and you have no cartilage in there, you have no padding, maybe you've got some loose bodies that develop," Szczerbiak said. ''But at this point, the main focus is physical therapy and strengthening it."

Asked if he thought rest over the break would clear up the injury, Szczerbiak said, ''That's our hope. This has really crept up on me, and it's really caught me off guard completely.

''Quite honestly, my right knee has always been the knee that I've had to stay on top of as far as therapy and stuff like that. When they said [during my physical] that I had stuff going on in my left knee, that was pretty shocking to me."

While Szczerbiak didn't want to consider the possibility of a chronic left knee problem, Rivers didn't want to contemplate a starting lineup without Szczerbiak. The Celtics are already undermanned without Al Jefferson (sprained right ankle) and Kendrick Perkins (dislocated left shoulder). If Szczerbiak doesn't play, they will face Cleveland with only 10 healthy players.

Rivers jokingly said he might start rookie Gerald Green or recent developmental league call-up Dwayne Jones. More than likely, Brian Scalabrine will start if Szczerbiak is not available.

If Szczerbiak does play, he will not guard James, as originally planned. Then again, containing the young superstar is always a team effort.

''Everyone's going to get a chance at him," Rivers said. ''He's gifted, and you can't give him one look, he tends to read it. That's what makes him so tough, he does a great job of reading doubles and getting others involved."

Asked about Szczerbiak's knee, Rivers said, ''I don't know if it is a big concern. We have to just watch it and be careful. If I play him 44 minutes a night, it probably would become a concern. I don't plan on doing that every night.

''I think he'll play, but we don't know that. It obviously hurt [not having him at practice] because he's the one guy when you're running all your stuff, you would love him to be part of that. But unfortunately he hasn't been the last two days."

Even if the injury-depleted Celtics beat Cleveland to earn their first three-game winning streak of the season, the break could not come at a better time.

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