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Rest for the weary

Ailing Celtics prep for trip with a break

Doc Rivers and his Celtics open a five-game trip tonight in Denver. Doc Rivers and his Celtics open a five-game trip tonight in Denver. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

DENVER -- With the Celtics still adjusting to life without Paul Pierce and carrying a two-game losing streak into the holiday break, coach Doc Rivers wanted one last practice before players and coaches went their separate ways for Christmas. He planned a brief workout for last Saturday to review basic defensive and offensive principles because practice time will be at a premium during a five-game, seven-day trip that starts tonight in Denver. But his assistant coaches convinced Rivers that three days off would be better than grinding through another shorthanded workout.

"I think they needed a break from each other and I needed a break from them," Rivers said. "Our coaching staff talked about it and we went back on forth on it.

"I kept thinking practice and they said, 'Coach, we need their legs. We ain't going to win with our brains.' And we're not. We're not going to outthink people. We're going to have to outplay them with effort."

Considering the mounting injuries and hectic schedule, the less-is-more philosophy is best. There will be no Pierce and no Theo Ratliff on the Celtics' first swing through the Western Conference. No Wally Szczerbiak, no Kendrick Perkins, no Michael Olowokandi for at least the start of the trip. There is one practice scheduled during the trip, for Saturday, but Rivers conceded that it might end up being a film session/light workout at the team hotel.

Despite the difficulties, Rivers said he believes the Celtics can post a better-than-.500 record on the trip. After all, they have a better record on the road (6-5) than at home (4-10).

But going 3-2 against the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Sonics, and Blazers would be difficult even with Pierce playing. Last season, they went 1-4 during their December/January jaunt, prompting executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge to comment that changes needed to be made. Less than a month later, Szczerbiak and Olowokandi arrived in a trade with Minnesota.

Poor play during this trip might make Ainge consider other changes, but he would rather see the young players already on the roster perform well. There will be plenty of minutes for Tony Allen, Gerald Green, Al Jefferson, and Delonte West to prove themselves.

"Whenever you lose as many players and key components as are out with us, you have to weather the storm," Ainge said. "We're certainly not the only team that has to weather the storm. There's a lot of injuries going on out in the league, but it obviously shows how valuable Paul is to us for a lot of reasons. But it's an opportunity for guys to show what they can do. They've been waiting for opportunities to play more."

While the Celtics are taking the less-is-more approach out of necessity, the Nuggets acquired Allen Iverson Dec. 19 believing more is more. Denver boasts the league's top two scorers in Carmelo Anthony (31.6 points per game) and Iverson (30.6), though Anthony will be serving a 15-game suspension for his part in the Nuggets-Knicks brawl when the Celtics play at the Pepsi Center tonight. But Iverson at high altitude with something to prove will be tough enough to contain.

Since his blizzard-delayed arrival in Denver, Iverson is 0-1 with his new team. Although he finished the Nuggets' 101-96 loss to the Kings last Friday with 22 points and 10 assists, Iverson would like nothing more than getting his first win in his new uniform tonight.

At least Iverson will have more familiarity with new teammates and the game plan of coach George Karl, after passing his physical barely in time to play against the Kings. The Celtics expect the Iverson in Denver to look a lot like the Iverson in Philadelphia. They are preparing for the Nuggets much the way they would have prepared for the Sixers with Iverson.

"It doesn't matter what uniform he's in," West said. "That's still Allen Iverson. It means one thing: You're guarding one of the quickest guys, one of the most talented scorers in the league. I've got to get my rest the night before."

When the Celtics play the struggling Clippers (11-15) tomorrow night, they could receive a much-needed boost with the return of Perkins from left foot plantar fasciitis. There is an outside chance Szczerbiak (sprained right ankle) also will be available, and Olowokandi (small abdominal tear) might be ready for action.

But reintegrating players is never an easy process, especially in the second of back-to-back games without the benefit of a morning shootaround.

As if those adjustments weren't enough, the Celtics will be the only team that plays back-to-back games with different basketballs: They'll use the new composite microfiber ball Sunday against Seattle and the old leather ball Monday against Portland.

By then, the Celtics should be accustomed to dealing with all sorts of change. Throughout the course of the trip, there undoubtedly will be changes to the starting lineup and the rotation as players become healthy. In a best-case scenario, the Celtics finish the trip a changed team, new-and-improved and better able to deal with adversity. If not, there could be more dramatic personnel changes ahead.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com

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