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BOB RYAN

Focusing on lottery was the way to go

Donald T. Sterling used to hold gala Lottery parties on an annual basis. It was a pleasant way to spend a Beverly Hills Sunday morning. I wonder what Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca have planned for May 22?

The Celtics did what they had to do. God forbid anyone employ the word "tank," but it's clear the Celtics did the right thing. The stakes were too high to do otherwise. When you find yourself in a circumstance such as the Celtics found themselves in January and February, the wise procedure is to allow nature to take its course. You put people out there -- anyone will do -- tell them to play hard, and if the team should happen to lose, well, hey, what can you do?

Say this for the 18-game losing streak: It made the Celtics part of the local sports dialogue. No one was paying much attention to them during the first two months and change, but once they started piling up the Ls, and once people who had not known about the existence of young men named Oden and Durant became attuned to the story, the Celtics were suddenly an item. Suddenly, there was no shame in losing. Indeed, there was a great deal to be gained from doing so.

At least Red didn't have to endure a scenario in which Celtics fans were actively hoping his team would lose. But he also didn't have to watch the dancing girls. All things considered, he knew when to go.

Oh, I know there's still a lot of wishing and hoping to be done before Greg Oden or Kevin Durant is wearing Celtic green. The Grizzlies, sitting with the worst record, only have a 45 percent chance of getting either 1 or 2. You can see that the Celtics, with the second-worst record, have no guarantees of getting one of them, either.

But it's better than having the 13th-worst record. I realize that's a little different than in the old days, when the worry was about only having home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference, and not for the Finals. But that, like it or not, is where we are with the Boston Celtics.

The interesting thing is that the Celtics really aren't as bad as they seem.

If, for example, you throw out the 18-game losing streak.

Why is it that people always laugh when I say that? But it's true. Losing 18 in a row doesn't just make you sound bad. It makes you sound pathetic and hopeless. The Celtics are neither.

The streak was a freak. Paul Pierce missed most of those games. I would say with a reasonable degree of certainty that were he in the lineup the Celtics would have won at least four and possibly as many as eight or nine of those games. And if they had they would have just about zero chance of getting Oden or Durant. Is that what you'd like? You make the call.

I frankly thought the streak was a win-win proposition. Every night you could sit back and watch at least one of the kids play well, thus enabling you to dream about the future. And if the Celtics should happen to win, that was a nice bonus.

No one was further off in his rosy preseason view of the Celtics than I, by the way. My more levelheaded colleagues predicted another unfulfilling, non-playoff year. Me? Get this: I called them for 43 Ws, mumbling something about them being "the most athletic team in Celtics history." I'd like to claim that an alien inhabited my body at the time I made that call, but you'd know better than to fall for that. So, here's my mea culpa. All right? We're going to move on now.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter much what you or I think, but it does matter what Danny Ainge thinks, and I know he thought he had put together a playoff team. However, "the team never did jell," he said prior to last night's season finale against the Pistons. "The team never did play at full strength. That's why it was a long season."

Pierce missed 35 games. That's a lot of games. He averaged 25 points in the 47 he did play, and he remains the team's best clutch rebounder. Playing a full season, he would have finished second on the team in assists.

Wally Szczerbiak missed 50 games. It is fashionable around here to deride Wally as a washout, but you may be surprised to know that even though it may not have looked like he was doing much in the 32 games he did play, he still managed to score 15 points a game. A healthy Wally Szczerbiak would have been a great asset to this team. The problem may be that Szczerbiak may not be capable of staying healthy.

Having Tony Allen for more than 33 games would have helped. At the time he decided to attempt that utterly foolish and superfluous dunk, he was playing the best basketball of his career. Always a defensive menace, he had suddenly become a 51 percent shooter and a 20 ppg scorer. Now we are left to wonder if he'll ever be anything close to that again. He, too, would have helped them win a few more games.

The greatest positive of the season? Finally, something we can all agree on. Al Jefferson became a solid 20-10 man.

He really is what they thought he was. He needed to take off weight and grow up a little, but the talent was always there. You can't teach hands. You can't teach quick feet. And you sure can't teach that one-in-a-thousand inside scoring touch. Al has a gift, pure and simple. His shots simply caress the rim. Kevin McHale was a different kind of inside scorer. The last Celtic who was born with this kind of inside touch was Cedric Maxwell. Al Jefferson is a keeper.

The best part is that Jefferson would be a wonderful companion for Oden or Durant. Or is that getting ahead of the story?

In the days ahead you'll be reading about Doc Rivers's status and which players go and which players stay, but they will all be secondary issues as we count down to May 22. So, I would advise Wyc and Steve to give Donald T. a call. I'm sure he's got some good party tips.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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