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A prescription for patience

Hope and hype begin to concern Ainge a bit

As soon as Jason Varitek flied to right field to make the final out on Opening Day, a 7-1 Red Sox loss at Kansas City, colleague Bob Ryan found an e-mail in his inbox. The gist of the missive: It's over. The Red Sox have no chance.

Those are the jugheads who worry Danny Ainge.

As the Celtics prepare to embark on what surely will be an intriguing season - and possibly a rewarding one - there are justifiably high expectations. Ainge had an Executive of the Year summer in putting together a roster that can challenge for the Eastern Conference championship.

But it's still far too early to think about what might be. And it will still be far too early even if Gilbert Arenas drops 43 on them on Opening Night and they lose to the Wizards at home. Remember, the greatest team in NBA history, the 1985-86 Celtics, lost its season opener in New Jersey, after which a newcomer by the name of Bill Walton declared himself "a disgrace to the game of basketball." He, and they, recovered nicely.

So far, there seems to be a lot of chatter (and money) on the Celtics. Here's what Chuck Esposito, who runs the sports book at Caesars Palace, had to say about the team: "The Celtics are still a popular choice to win the NBA championship; they currently sit at 6-1 and are the fourth team behind the Spurs, Mavs, and Suns. They are the same as the Bulls at 6-1 and are co-favorites with the Bulls to win the East."

That's right. The wiseguys think the Celtics have more juice than the Pistons or Heat, than the Nets or the defending conference champion Cavaliers. Paul Pierce thinks the same way.

"I don't see why not," he said when asked about winning a title this year. "It's hard to say right now until we get our chemistry down and playing well together, and those are the things we're already working on. But we have our work cut out for us. Our expectation is to win a championship."

(I think he meant an NBA championship.)

Ainge doesn't mind that kind of talk.

"My concern is not what the players and coaches think," he said. "I'm not afraid of high expectations. I welcome them. I just get a little nervous thinking about what will happen when the expectations aren't met, initially.

"There's an excitement. I don't want to stifle that. But, in the end, humility and hard work is going to get us where we want to go."

Consider the early obstacles facing Doc Rivers as he prepares for a fourth season in Boston. Yes, he now has three All-Stars, but they've never played together and they've all been accustomed to being The Man (save for Kevin Garnett taking the last big shot in Minnesota). They all say they're willing to sacrifice and sound like they mean it. Until we see different, we'll take them at their word.

The Celtics have young-uns at what many feel are the two most important positions: center and point guard.

Garnett and Ray Allen are two of 11 new players on the current roster. When the dust settles, there will likely be nine. Of those nine, you have to figure a handful are going to be regular rotation players: Garnett, Allen, James Posey, Eddie House, maybe even Scot Pollard, Gabe Pruitt, or Glen Davis. Posey, House, and Pollard all are on one-year deals (Posey has a player option for next season).

Tony Allen, one of only six returnees, is coming back from a serious knee injury. If he regains his explosiveness, fine. How long will that take? Will he get the playing time he feels he deserves? He, too, is in an interesting situation, headed to restricted free agency unless the Celtics do something before Oct. 31.

So there are a ton of unknowns. The folks in Detroit pretty much know what they're going to get. Same for Chicago. Those teams are largely intact from a year ago and, in the case of the Pistons, there will be some reckoning ahead. Who can say what will transpire in Miami? If Shaq wants to play, Dwyane Wade is able to play, and Pat Riley coaches, I'm sure they like their chances. New Jersey? They lost Mikki Moore - horror! - but will get back a healthy Nenad Krstic and a healthy Richard Jefferson.

In other words, while the excitement and expectations in Boston are fine, it's going to take a while. Team president Rich Gotham put it best: "Winning is the best marketing. The second best is hope of winning."

The Celtics are second right now - and hope, sooner rather than later, to be first.

Oden plays - with reporters

If Greg Oden ever loses his day job, he has two alternatives: stand-up comedian or movie critic.

The down-and-out-for-now Portland rookie center made his first appearance before reporters last Thursday since undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Oden always has had a playful side to him, which makes him endearing, not to mention marketable. And he showed that in his news conference, insisting that he didn't hurt the knee playing Dance Dance Revolution, a music video game, or getting off his couch, another rumor (fueled by his own blog entry).

"Ridiculous," he sniffed.

Oden regaled reporters with stories about his new dog, a beagle mix named Charles Barkley McLovin, and he joked about his age, saying he was "19 going on 52." He said he watches three DVDs a day, saving the scary stuff for nighttime.

His rehab routine often runs six hours a day and there is a lot of pool work involved. And what about finally playing an NBA game? You could make a case that Oden has twice been denied an NBA debut, once by David Stern and Billy Hunter and their age-limit clause in the new collective bargaining agreement and now by the knee injury.

"I was ready for this season," he said. "Now I know I won't be able to play. I have to accept that and do what I can to improve my game."

Oden said he wants to improve his vertical leap, hoping to be another Dwight Howard. The Blazers will settle for the Greg Oden they drafted June 28. As GM Kevin Pritchard put it, "We're going to take a long-term approach to this. Just like with the team. This has never been about a short-term fix for the Trail Blazers."

Freshman orientation

Yes, this is the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant rookie class. But there were six other college freshmen who went in the first round, and all eight were among the first 21 selections.

High school basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro, who saw these kids at his all-star games and summer camps, offers his thoughts on the Other Six:

Mike Conley, Memphis: "He'll be able to do what you want him to do. I look at him as a Tony Parker-type guard down the road. He was a late bloomer, but he'll probably play the most of the six."

Brandan Wright, Golden State: "I see him as someone who has a chance to be a good NBA player, but he's not inclined for stardom. Many think he'll be an All-Star. I don't think so."

Spencer Hawes, Sacramento: "He's going to be a very good pro. He would have gone top 15 if he had come out after high school. I like this pick a lot."

Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia: "He is talented, but he's never shown the work ethic worthy of that talent. That position [small forward] is a tough one in the NBA. I think, like Wright, he'll be good. But he won't ever be great."

Javaris Crittendon, Lakers: "He has great potential and, with his size, he has a chance to be really, really good. But he's a point guard for the Lakers and he's going to need two to three years. I don't know if Kobe can wait that long."

Daequan Cook, Miami: "He's the shakiest of the eight but he's big and he can shoot the ball. I see him becoming a Matt Carroll-Jason Kapono type down the road because he can really shoot it."

Etc.

Standing pat doesn't sit well

Sure sounds like LeBron James isn't all that thrilled with the Cavaliers' relative lack of activity in the offseason. In an interview with the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, James said, "I wish we could have made some moves to improve our team. As a competitor, you want to get better every year. I was hoping that we could add a few pieces, seeing all the other teams getting better. But the advantage we have is that we have the same guys coming back, so we aren't going to have to use training camp to learn a new system or things like that. We do have that advantage." James also gave ringing endorsements to Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao, restricted free agents who have yet to sign extensions. "I need both of them," he said. "I would think the organization knows we need those guys."

Veteran voice

It might surprise you to learn that not only is Scot Pollard the oldest Celtic (five months and change older than Ray Allen) but he also has more playoff experience than any other Celtic. Pollard's teams have made the playoffs each of the last nine seasons (although he played only three minutes last year for Cleveland in the postseason). Pollard went to the conference finals in 2002 with Sacramento, the best team in the last 10 years not to win a championship. (Yup, better than Dallas last year.) He was on the 61-win Indiana team that made it to the conference finals in 2004. "In both of the series, one play changed everything," Pollard said. "In 2002, it was Robert Horry's 3-pointer [which evened the series at 2-2]. With Indiana, it was Tayshaun Prince's block [of a Reggie Miller layup in Game 2]." And last year? "I really thought we weren't going to make a deep run," he said. "But when we got there, I thought, gee, we're playing really well. We have a chance to go to the Finals. And we did." But after a third-round matchup with the Pistons, said Pollard, "we didn't have enough gas left for the experienced, intelligent, and very talented San Antonio Spurs." Pollard has 60 games of playoff experience. Kevin Garnett has 47, while Paul Pierce and Allen each have 37, and James Posey has 34. Eddie House has 24.

A friends episode

Memphis GM Chris Wallace made a lot of offseason moves, but one of the cagiest had to be acquiring Spanish point guard Juan Carlos Navarro from Washington. Why would Memphis need a point guard - and surrender a No. 1 pick - after drafting Mike Conley Jr. and having incumbents Damon Stoudamire and Kyle Lowry? He happens to be the best friend and roommate of Pau Gasol. "We've been best friends for years," Gasol said. "We played together when I first came to Barcelona when I was 16 years old. And we are very good friends. We grew up together. We have a great relationship beyond basketball and that's also the stuff we want to bring to the team, the feeling of unity." One thing Gasol, Navarro, and everyone else in Memphis wants to do is put last year in the circular file. "A lot of things happened that did not help me or the team," Gasol said of the 2006-07 season, which resulted in Memphis having the worst record and Gasol missing a slew of games with a broken foot. "This year we are looking forward to a totally different year. I'm excited and motivated."

Weight on his shoulder

Tough 11th-hour news for the Orlando Magic, who are quite likely to be without old friend Tony Battie for the season. Battie is scheduled to get a third opinion this week on the status of his left shoulder. He has a torn rotator cuff, and surgery would mean the end of the season. The Magic doctors and the shoulder specialists at Duke recommend surgery. Battie plans to see the celebrated Dr. James Andrews in Alabama this week. (How is it that these guys can get in to see renowned doctors on such short notice?) Battie said he hurt the shoulder playing pickup basketball with Dwight Howard.

Holding court

Leftovers from Celtics media day: Paul Pierce talked on WEEI about how the team is going to do a "360" this year. Good thing his high school math teacher wasn't listening. Or his junior high math teacher . . . Pollard talked about his comedy mentor, Rick Mahorn: "He was really funny. He was a jerk, but he was really funny. He taught me a lot about relaxing." . . . Doc Rivers refused to ID the player last year who, before the start of the season, predicted the Celtics would win the NBA title in a team meeting. "I will say this," Rivers said. "He's not here anymore." . . . Kendrick Perkins said he knows he has to have a thick skin with Kevin Garnett on his case. "I won't take it personal," said Perkins. "I know he's trying to make me a better player. Last year, if you yelled at someone, they'd take it personal and would disappear for six games." . . . Hoops boss Danny Ainge, public relations chief Jeff Twiss, trainer Ed Lacerte, and Vladimir Shulman, the team's massage therapist, are the only holdovers from the last time the Celtics went to Europe for a preseason trip. That was back in 1988, for the McDonald's Open in Madrid. The Celtics beat the Yugoslavian National Team, 113-85, and then beat Real Madrid, 111-96, to win the championship. Ainge didn't make it through the season with Boston. He was traded to Sacramento in February 1989.

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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