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Rule of the game

Holdover Celtics will be driven by Finals finale loss

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 28, 2010

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WALTHAM — Through all the optimism and the energy yesterday, it still lingered.

Over the summer, the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo watched his star get bigger, from his brief stint with Team USA to his run of promotional opportunities, but he hasn’t watched Boston’s Game 7 NBA Finals loss to the Lakers.

Paul Pierce married his longtime fiancée, had his high school jersey retired, and signed a contract that will allow him to retire in a Celtics uniform, but he’s still ruing the missed opportunity.

Swallowed in a sea of reporters on media day at the team’s training center, Kevin Garnett told a joke, cracked a smile, and seemed happier than he had in the last couple of years. But he admitted he barely can bring himself to talk about it.

It meant that much.

It’s the reason the players are all back for the 2010-11 season. It’s the reason they re-tooled. A championship was within their grasp. The thought of how close they came will drive them through the season as much as it haunted them in the offseason.

“It’s hard to really put that behind you,’’ Pierce said. “It hasn’t really gotten out of my head. As much as you want to put it behind you, it’s hard and you can’t. The only way to erase that memory is to try to go out and get another championship.’’

In a way altogether different from a year ago, this season the motivation is “opportunity lost.’’

Getting through the offseason was painful, Garnett said, and three months wasn’t enough time to get over it. He sent text messages to teammates in the summer, wondering what they were feeling.

“It was very similar to myself,’’ he said.

Garnett is happy to have the team’s core back intact, pleased to be playing with new additions Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, and encouraged to be a full season removed from knee surgery — but Game 7 hovers over him.

“It’s going to drive me,’’ he said. “It’s going to drive everybody. It could have been six games or seven games, a loss is a loss.’’

The players moved on in different ways.

Barely a month after the Finals, Rondo was in Las Vegas with the Lakers’ Lamar Odom for USA Basketball, training with a player who earned a ring that Rondo could have won.

“I didn’t want to hang on to it too long,’’ Rondo said. “I actually saw LO. We spoke. We’re pretty cool. It’s not like I hate the Lakers or anything. I want to beat every opponent I play. But Game 7’s over with.’’

Coach Doc Rivers’s return was the first move forward, a sign of commitment in another push for a title.

Ray Allen signed a two-year contract. Pierce signed a four-year deal. Rondo — still young, now more rich and famous — will start the first leg of the five-year, $55 million contract he signed last season. Shaquille O’Neal has billed the next two seasons his “730-day plan’’ toward the end of his career. Glen Davis is the only player in a contract year.

The way the team played in the postseason convinced Celtics president Danny Ainge to keep the core together.

“I thought the playoff run was pretty special,’’ he said. “They showed they still have a lot of fight left in them. They had a great deal of resolve.’’

The fresh faces give the Celtics new life, new energy. But the team’s purpose still centers around Game 7.

Pierce was asked what the additions of Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal give the Celtics that they didn’t have last year.

“A second 7-footer,’’ he said. “That’s something we needed in the Finals.’’

The players said they won’t neglect the regular season, which could mean the difference between a Game 7 at home or on the road.

“It’s not something that we’re going to kind of coast through,’’ Pierce said. “Guys want to play well in the regular season and into the playoffs. Maybe home court would have helped, maybe it wouldn’t. But who knows? We want to give ourselves the best chance.’’

Rivers and his staff watched the tape of Game 7 about a month ago. It was easier that way, less emotional. But the regrets didn’t disappear.

“You watch it and you look at all the opportunities you did have in that game,’’ Rivers said. “You saw some things you didn’t see.’’

They also saw the ticker-tape tumbling slowly to the Staples Center floor. They saw their team’s sweat-drenched, tear-stained jerseys.

“I don’t think you ever get over it,’’ Rivers said. “Whenever I see anything, they always show the damn celebration. That’s not anything I want to watch.

“Hell, I’m not over Game 7, Celtics-Atlanta Hawks,’’ said Rivers, about his team losing to Boston in the 1988 playoffs. “So I’m certainly not going to be over this.’’

The immediate desire is to erase it all. Begin anew. New faces, new focus. But in the end, they’re looking for something they missed out on months ago.

“It makes you want to get started again, so you can get back there,’’ Rivers said. “But other than that, you’ve just got to move forward. But it has to push you a little bit. There’s no doubt.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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