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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Losing may be answer

Went to the Celtics game Monday night and enjoyed myself immensely. It was lots of fun watching the kids leaping into the stands with reckless abandon after loose balls, and I loved it when Big Al pump-faked Spurs future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan to the rafters, then put his head down and bulled his way to the hole.

I bet Boston's front office got a kick out of it, too. The building was rocking, attendance was a couple thousand short of capacity, and youngsters Gerald Green, Rajon Rondo, Ryan Gomes, and Al Jefferson played bountiful, meaningful minutes.

The team played hard, staged a furious and extremely entertaining comeback -- and lost.

Perfect.

In other words, all objectives were met.

The Celtics may or may not have truly believed they were going to be a playoff team when this season started, but surely they know better now. Franchise player Paul Pierce has missed 17 consecutive games with a foot injury (the team is 2-15 in those games) and does not expect to be back before February. Wally Szczerbiak also has missed 17 games. And just when Tony Allen looked as though he had finally shaken off the doldrums that have haunted him since he went afoul of the law one fateful night in Chicago, he embarked on a dunk after the whistle blew and shredded his knee. He's done for the year.

Asked on his regular radio appearance if thoughts of Greg Oden flashed through his head after witnessing that devastating injury, coach Doc Rivers confessed, "The thought crossed my mind."

Doc was joking. Sort of.

No coach ever wants to lose games, and Rivers certainly isn't in that mode now. Nor are his players. They are too young and too hungry and too talented to lay down and die for the purpose of better positioning themselves for some college jewel they aren't even sure is an upgrade over what they have.

"We don't want Greg Oden," Jefferson sniffed. "We don't need a big man."

Calm yourself, Big Al. We're talking about you and Oden playing together, not having Ohio State's man-child replace you. But here's the rub: Who's to say it will be Oden? If it's Florida's Joakim Noah or Texas sensation Kevin Durant, that, too, represents possibilities, but there are no guarantees, as longtime Celtics fan know all too well. In fact, the worst team hardly ever gets the No. 1 pick.

Former coach Rick Pitino admitted after the fact the primary reason he took the Celtics job in 1997 was because he was sure they were going to land Tim Duncan. Instead, the Spurs, who lost centerpiece David Robinson to an injury six games into the schedule, then encouraged him to rest up and get healthy for the rest of the season, wound up with the top pick. The Celtics, despite the league's worst record, drafted Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer with Nos. 3 and 6. We all know how that turned out.

(The other lesson learned was not to give up on young players too soon, as Billups later proved, but not before he made four other NBA stops. Further reminder of this lesson was at the Garden last night in the form of former Celtic Joe Johnson, who was jettisoned to Phoenix after less than a season, and now scores at will for the Hawks.)

It is a fine line when you start looking toward the future in the middle of a season. Players and coaches don't like it, but general managers and owners are trained to view it in strictly business terms, as they should.

"Obviously, everyone knows what's out there," Rivers said. "But I'm a firm believer if you start trying to lose, the basketball gods will get you."

The lottery game must be played far more subtly than that. We're not talking about tanking. We're not saying you mismatch personnel on purpose and yank combinations that are working in the middle of a game. We're not suggesting Boston lure Acie Earl out of retirement and ink him to a long-term deal.

If you blatantly lose, the league office will weigh in with severe consequences. That's why nobody ever discusses positioning themselves for the lottery. That's also why a lottery was introduced in the first place, so teams that stopped trying would not automatically be rewarded with the best player in the draft .

League officials were irked a couple of weeks ago when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban mused in one of his blogs that the only team in the Atlantic Division that should try to win games is the New York Knicks, because they don't have their first-round pick this June.

While you can understand why commissioner David Stern would cringe at such candid analysis from one of his owners, you have to admit Cuban has a point (he usually does).

The 76ers have been the most obvious about their intentions. They traded Allen Iverson, bought out Chris Webber, and are now trying to move Kyle Korver because he scores too many darn points.

Boston's approach is not as hard-core. But if there was ever a year to encourage Pierce to take his time and heal properly, this is it. Boston won't be working the phones to acquire a veteran to bolster its thinning ranks. And it will give kids such as Rondo the lion's share of the minutes instead of Sebastian Telfair, because if the rookie ever hones his perimeter shot, he will be absolutely electric.

The players chafe at suggestions of a lost season. That in itself is very, very good news.

"We're trying to win every single game," Green said. "Speaking for myself, I still think we can make the playoffs."

"Let me tell you something," Jefferson said. "Doc's not teaching us to go out and lose."

Rivers said he hasn't discussed lottery matters with ownership.

"I don't think [owner] Wyc [Grousbeck] thinks that way," Rivers said. "I understand it's human nature. But after we lose, I see it on his face. He doesn't like it."

Grousbeck is a fan. No doubt he really hates it when his team drops a game -- until he goes home, slips off his Celtics jersey, and thinks about the buzz a kid such as Oden could generate for his team.

Last night, the Celtics started out by ripping off a 21-8 lead against a club that had just 13 wins itself. It appeared Boston was on its way to halting its eight-game losing streak when it inexplicably collapsed in the second half (losing Big Al to an ankle sprain didn't help). Their 18-point lead evaporated like the Celtic mystique that once inhabited these parts.

You can't lose 'em all? Maybe they can. Final score: Atlanta 82, Boston 76.

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

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