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Gomes starting to really cash in

He keeps hearing it wherever he goes: We knew it all along.

Ryan Gomes is happy to know that you were convinced he could be an impact player in the NBA, because to be perfectly honest, he was beginning to wonder.

Can you blame him? Go back to Jan. 6, when he showed up at the Garden only to discover he was inactive for the game against the Atlanta Hawks. That devastating indignity was on the heels of eight consecutive and demoralizing DNPs, coach's decision. He stayed on the inactive list -- the NBA's version of an elephant graveyard -- for 10 lousy games. And then, when he was finally brought back to the roster, he sat for three more without ever ripping off his warmups.

''I got discouraged a lot," Gomes confessed. ''I thought I did pretty well in the summer league and in preseason. But then you come to Boston and you realize there were 10 guys here before you. I kept telling myself, 'You've got to look at all the other rookies.' Antoine Wright wasn't playing in New Jersey, and he got drafted ahead of me [at No. 15]. Nate Robinson [the 21st pick] wasn't getting a lot of minutes [in New York]. So I figured, 'I've just got to keep working.' "

The days of lean minutes and goose eggs in the box score are in the past. Gomes made his 12th start last night against the Philadelphia 76ers, and again was a major force in the outcome. Paul Pierce's ongoing heroics saved the Celtics in the 104-101 come-from-behind win, but his trusty sidekick was Gomes, who is quickly becoming the most indispensable player in the lineup besides The Truth. Last night, Gomes submitted 29 points (a career high, eclipsing the one he set the night before against Washington), 11 rebounds, and 3 assists in 42 minutes. His average numbers as a starter are stunning: 15.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, and a shooting percentage of 61.1.

It makes you wonder why this kid had to wait so long for his chance. Big East aficionados have been screaming for Gomes for months. Coach Doc Rivers declared last week, ''Blame me." Not a bad place to start. We know Danny Ainge was a big Gomes fan. In fact, there were rumors on draft night that Ainge was poised to use his first-round pick on the Providence star before realizing he could scoop him up in the second round.

Here's part of the reason why Gomes didn't impress the brass earlier in the season: He was toiling away at small forward, instead of his natural power forward position.

''We probably made a mistake by forcing him at the 3," Rivers admitted. ''But every workout he did for NBA teams was at the 3 spot. He felt that was his best chance to make it. In fact, I think one of the reasons he dropped to us was people weren't sure if he could play the 3. At the end of the day, he's an undersized 4. But in this league, that's OK.

''There's a whole bunch of guys who have made their living that way, starting with the [Charles] Barkleys. He'll probably struggle defensively at times there, but I don't think he'll ever struggle offensively."

Gomes's quickness was on display through much of last night's outing, including some key transition baskets in the final quarter. The rookie also played a role in what looked briefly to be the death knell of the Green with 3:49 to play when he ventured into the paint against Steven Hunter and had the ball swallowed up. Sixers superstar Allen Iverson quickly converted that into a fast-break, 3-point play, and Boston was looking at a 94-87 deficit.

No matter. Pierce drained a pair of monster threes down the stretch and added new footage to his amazing season. The Sixers know all about No. 34, but some of them left town talking about Gomes.

''He really surprised me," said Kyle Korver. ''I thought he was a guy who could hit the open J and get some garbage baskets, but he's more than that. He goes to the hole, he rebounds. It seemed like he didn't miss tonight.

''It's rare to have a 4 and a 5 that can shoot, but Boston has that in Gomes and Raef [LaFrentz]."

If Gomes's future is as a 4, that means he'll be battling for time with Al Jefferson, the designated future of the franchise. Big Al has more long-term upside than Gomes, but at the moment, the kid with four years of college experience is more prepared to make an impact.

Watch him move without the ball and you'll see the subtle, yet critical decisions he makes. One of his biggest assets is he blends in Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak without impeding their production. His spacing and ability to move without the ball have been duly noted by his veteran teammates.

''That's key for him," Rivers agreed. ''That's why Paul and Wally like playing with him. That's why they get the ball to him quicker than some of the other guys, because they know he knows how to space the floor. There was a play the other night when Ryan made a back cut that was just perfect . . . if that was Al or Perk [Kendrick Perkins] out there, they would have been standing around, kind of not sure what to do."

And yet, it wasn't until Jefferson was felled by a sprained ankle and Perkins was sidelined with a dislocated shoulder that Gomes was thrust into the spotlight, almost by default. He wasted no time exhibiting a deftness for shooting, rebounding, and intangible qualities such as weakside screens, backdoor cuts, and the ability to get Pierce the ball just where he likes it. Gomes's defensive game has holes, but that doesn't really separate him from a number of his teammates.

At the moment, Jefferson unofficially occupies the 5 spot while he and Gomes are on the floor, and Perkins continues to heal. What that does is leave the Celtics with undersized players at two spots.

''But the fact that Ryan can shoot saves us," Rivers said. ''Without his jump shot, this little experiment would never have been a success. One thing I think he can do more of, though, is take guys off the dribble. I don't think there are a lot of 4s that won't be able to stay in front of him."

We are all waiting to see what happens when Perkins returns. Boston misses Perk's toughness, a quality neither Gomes nor Jefferson can match. In fact, Big Al's ability to fight through pain has been a topic of discussion in these parts over the last week. Jefferson toiled in obvious discomfort in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's thriller against Washington, but no matter how much he grimaced and/or limped his way up the floor, Rivers refused to take him out. Jefferson, despite his histrionics, was effective down the stretch.

Asked if he talked to his young forward about playing through pain, which is a necessary NBA rite of passage, Rivers answered, ''Not until after the game. I told him, 'Hey, you did great.' Then I said, 'Listen, this is how it is.' The more he does it [play through pain], the more he'll be able to do it."

There should be enough minutes for Jefferson, Perkins, and Gomes to go around now that Gomes has proven he has earned a regular spot in the lineup. If it means shortening his rotation elsewhere, then Rivers should do it, posthaste. It is a nice problem to ponder.

''I'll do whatever they want me to do," Gomes said. ''Early on, I was so tense, trying to do everything right. I hurt myself.

''But now when I come out, I'm loose and aggressive."

Not to mention pretty darn good.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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