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Dan Shaughnessy

Ainge’s view from the top

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / June 6, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — He’s been around the NBA since the early 1980s when he left the Toronto Blue Jays to join Larry Bird and the Celtics. He played in a whopping 193 playoff games, including six trips to the Finals. He won two championships as a player and was a starter on the greatest team in NBA history (1985-86 Celtics). He was a head coach (Phoenix) for three years and a color analyst (TNT) for a couple more. He’s the father of six children, and a grandfather to three more.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Danny Ainge. President of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.

We don’t hear too much from Ainge these days. He scared us with a heart event during the playoffs last spring and made headlines this year when he tossed a towel in the air while J.J. Hickson attempted a free throw in Cleveland.

Always the agitator. That’s one of the things we like about Danny (and for one last time, it was Tree Rollins who bit Danny, not the other way around).

Ainge is a terrific judge of basketball talent. He was scouting Rajon Rondo when the flossy point guard was in high school. He’s twice given Doc Rivers enough players to get to the NBA Finals.

He never gets caught up in the noise. Ainge doesn’t react when he hears and reads critiques about himself and his team. He’s secure in his skin.

I caught up with him yesterday and ran a few topics by him.

For starters, what did he think of Game 1?

“I thought we were tentative. But series change all the time, even in regular-season play, let alone the NBA Finals. You have a blowout victory one night and the next night you have a blowout the other way.’’

He said he hadn’t seen Pau Gasol’s mild yet overblown comments about Kevin Garnett.

“He’s just stating his opinion. I don’t have much reaction to it. I hope KG has reaction to it.’’

At the end of the regular season, Ainge said he thought the Celtics still believed they could beat any team in the playoffs.

“I think our guys had a lot of confidence. There’s a lot of continuity in the style of play they play. I believed, and they believed, that there wasn’t a team we could not beat. It was a tough mountain to climb and to have to do it on the road — Miami, Cleveland, Orlando, and now LA.

“I really believed we could beat any one of those teams, and beating them all would be an amazing accomplishment.’’

Many of us think this series with the Lakers represents the last roundup for the Big Three. Ray Allen will be an unrestricted free agent after the Finals, and Paul Pierce has an opt-out clause. Health is an ongoing concern for the aging trio. Is the window closed after this season?

“No. Not necessarily. I hope to know more about that soon, but I don’t think so. I hope that’s not the case. With Paul and Ray, that’s something we’ll discuss shortly after the season ends. They both have expressed a desire to stay.’’

Ainge called out Rondo for an attitude adjustment last spring. He thought his comments were inflated and taken out of context.

“I think he gets wounded by hearing things from different people interpreted in different ways. I can have conversations with Rondo and say the same things personally.

“He’s a very bright kid. He knows what his strengths and weaknesses are — and he knows that I know what his strengths and weaknesses are. We have a good relationship and good communication.

“It was amazing to me — and I know how this world works — a couple hours after I had that interview, the headlines were ‘Ainge Rips Rondo,’ when 90 percent of my interview was saying how great he was and how much I love the kid.

“It was like, ‘He needs to mature and become a better leader. He needs to be more consistent.’ Those are things I would say about my own son or about myself. So it has more to do with how the media works more than any disappointment that I had in Rajon. It was just being honest with where he was as a player.

“I think the thing with Rondo always has been that he’s young and inconsistent. Rondo is great in four out of 10 games. If he could become great in seven out of 10 games, he’s a superstar. A lot of people can’t be great in any game.

“It’s just a matter of his maturity that is part of any question about Rajon. But he’s certainly showed how he’s matured. He’s become more consistent and he’s been a bright spot on this year.’’

Do those public firestorms nudge Ainge away from the spotlight?

“I do try to stay away from it as much as I can. I know I have obligations with the media, but I do try to stay away and let the players have their thing. I understand how it works. I sometimes laugh at things that are written or said, but I don’t get too worried about it.’’

Rivers has stated that he might not want to come back and coach next season. What does Ainge think?

“We’ll just give Doc a few days, maybe a week, and we’ll discuss everything like we do each year. I think Doc will be back and I think like with every coach, there’s times in every season when you go, ‘What are we doing here?’

“It’s a tough job and it’s been a grind and it’s been an emotional roller coaster for Doc this year. He’s done a magnificent job. He’s an excellent coach and we hope he stays. I hope he feels better about everything when the season ends. Doc’s not a real emotional guy. He’s pretty logical and clear-headed.’’

Some of us have anointed Kevin McHale as the Celtic coach-in-waiting.

“I can’t comment on that. I don’t even know in which direction we would go, if Doc did leave, but I don’t want to discuss the possibility of Doc leaving.’’

What does he remember about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 1980s?

“It was more than the Finals. It was like a yearlong thing. I remember being a little bit disappointed in ’86 when the Lakers got beat by Houston because it was a lot of fun. I was looking forward to it.

“The Lakers were just a team you watched how they were playing all season long. I had a great deal of respect for the Lakers. I didn’t have a hatred. I had an amazing amount of respect for Magic and Byron and obviously Kareem.

“We knew we were going to have to play our best to win. It was a fun, exciting time, and it’s an amazing challenge when you play the Lakers.

“I thought they were better in ’84 [when Boston won] and I thought we were better in ’85 [when Los Angeles won]. Then in ’87 we were really banged up and physically not a match [and the Lakers won in six].’’

After the Celtics won the 1984 Finals in seven, the NBA changed the Finals format from 2-2-1-1-1 to 2-3-2.

“I prefer the 2-2-1-1-1 format. I think it makes a better series. Sure, there was a lot of travel, but I still like it.’’

Who wins this year?

“I think we have our hands full, but we’re back in it with a win Sunday.’’

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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