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CELTICS NOTEBOOK

Yet another star calls in sick

McGrady opts to skip this game

The Celtics' Al Jefferson shoulders the burden of playing defense against Houston's Juwan Howard. (PAT SULLIVAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

HOUSTON -- Less than an hour before tipoff, news trickled into the visitors' locker room that Tracy McGrady would miss last night's game with flulike symptoms. And with Yao Ming still rehabbing from a leg injury, the Celtics faced a team playing without two of its top players for the second game in a row. The Jazz defeated the Celtics, 105-87, Saturday night minus Andrei Kirilenko (bruised left knee) and Mehmet Okur (back spasms).

Despite that odd occurrence, the Celtics were not subscribing to any conspiracy theories; they don't think their place at the bottom of the NBA standings makes top players more inclined to miss games against them. But let's just say the prospect of playing the Lakers, Suns, or Mavericks may have given McGrady enough of an adrenaline rush to play.

"Maybe something's wrong with him," said Paul Pierce before the Celtics stunned the Rockets, 77-72. "It's a long season. There are going to be injuries. There is going to be sickness. I hope he gets better. We aren't a team to look at that and be like, 'Oh, it's a chance for us to win.' It was the same with Utah. It's not any easier with T-Mac out."

That said, Doc Rivers would rather see McGrady in street clothes, especially considering the way he has led the Rockets in the absence of Yao. McGrady is averaging 24.6 points per game, 5.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists.

"I always think it's good," said Rivers. "I've heard the other argument . . . teams may rally, especially the guys who don't get shots. They want to show what they can do.

"Maybe the Rockets wanted to match our misery. If I had talked to McGrady, I would have told him that I can't guard him and there's no reason to have Doc-itis."

Replacing McGrady in his first start of the year was Bonzi Wells, who scored a season-high 27 points and was 11 of 16 from the line (both career highs).

Sympathy pains
Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy can relate to the Celtics' difficulties with injuries; he went through similar circumstances last season. Although the Rockets have missed McGrady and Yao for stretches this season, it is nothing compared to last year. "I feel for any team that goes through the injuries that they've gone through," said Van Gundy. "I think Doc is a hell of a coach saddled with a difficult year, but he handles it with his usual poise and class and calm. Then, there's guys like me. I want to put a bullet in my head. Somewhere in between is probably where you should be at." . . . Playing in the Western Conference, Van Gundy doesn't see the Celtics up close very often, but he had high praise for their offense. "I think they're an outstanding offensive team," said Van Gundy. "There's a lot of people who get credit for being great offensive coaches in this league and well-deserved. I don't think there's anybody better than Doc Rivers. The way they play the game offensively is beautiful to watch if you're not having to guard them and defend them." After a first quarter in which the visitors shot 26 percent (6 for 23) and scored just 14 points, Van Gundy might have wanted to take back some of those words.

A moving ceremony
The Celtics chartered a plane to Austin Sunday so that radio broadcaster Cedric Maxwell, team massage therapist Vladimir Shulman, trainer Ed Lacerte, vice president of media services Jeff Twiss, and Rivers could attend the memorial service for Dennis Johnson. Celtics rookie Allan Ray, currently playing for the Development League team Johnson coached, the Austin Toros, also was at the ceremony. "It's nothing you want to go to, but it was really a nice ceremony," said Rivers. "I've been to too many, but it was at the top of the list." Rivers cited comments by two members of the Toros as particularly moving. The players talked about how Johnson could overwhelm them with information about the game, but now they wish they had had more time to learn from him.

Bracing themselves
The Rockets are trying a number of braces for Yao's right leg, though none have felt comfortable so far. Van Gundy said Yao is concerned about the impact the brace has on his ability to run, so it doesn't impact him in other ways healthwise. "If it concerns him, it concerns me," said Van Gundy. "I'm not sure what can be done differently. We've got to figure it out." . . . Speaking of centers, when Van Gundy mentioned that he wanted to get Dikembe Mutombo back on track, he was asked if the veteran center, 40, was showing signs of age. "I don't think you discount the factor of age," said Van Gundy, "but I don't think that's the primary reason. We've had a lot of days off. We just came off the All-Star Game, so he's been off plenty of time." . . . Returning the compliments of Van Gundy, Rivers said, "I don't get into the whole Coach of the Year stuff, but I don't know if there's a better case for one than Jeff for what he's done," said Rivers . . . Asked about the minutes Houston native Gerald Green has gotten this season, Rivers joked, "I think he went out and got a bunch of our guys injured so he could play. It's a hell of a move by Gerald." . . . The Celtics canceled a morning shootaround. "We were just talking and it got long and I felt there was no need to have shootaround," said Rivers. "For us, at times, we need more focus and intensity and being mentally ready for games than we do time on the floor."

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