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Ainge’s eyes on his stars

By Gary Washburn
April 24, 2011

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NEW YORK — While the scrutiny swelled as the Celtics labored in the final few weeks of the regular season, team president Danny Ainge responded to those critics with an unwavering confidence in his team and the moves he made to create the roster.

The Celtics were expected to toil in a long series with the New York Knicks, considered the most dangerous lower seed in the playoffs. But the Celtics enter this afternoon’s Game 4 at Madison Square Garden with a chance to sweep and give themselves perhaps a week to rest before a highly anticipated Eastern Conference semifinals series with the Miami Heat.

Watching his club work out briefly yesterday at Madison Square Garden, Ainge once again maintained that the Celtics will advance or not because of the play of their four All-Stars. Although Kendrick Perkins was a critical part of the team’s identity and defense, the Celtics are still nearly unbeatable if Ray Allen and Paul Pierce make shots, Kevin Garnett is aggressive on the glass, and Rajon Rondo orchestrates the offense with maximum energy, as he did in Game 3.

The Celtics’ bench has been disappointing in this series, at best. They are shooting a combined 14 of 47 (29.7 percent) and Glen Davis spent the last two minutes of Game 3 gaining some sought-after confidence by hitting two jumpers in garbage time. The Celtics are hardly a finished product and Game 3 was hardly a perfect game as Garnett soundly corrected this reporter when he described Game 3 as near-perfect.

“We had 20 turnovers, so that’s nowhere near perfect,’’ he said. “We know we’ve got to take care of the ball better. I thought in Game 1 and 2, [the Knicks] were a lot more aggressive. In Game 3, I thought we set the tone of what it’s going to be like. And that’s got to be the mentality for Game 4.’’

Ainge and coach Doc Rivers have stepped back and allowed the four All-Stars to emerge even more as leaders. Garnett looked Friday morning as if he had just finished chewing nails after shootaround, he was so intense. Pierce hasn’t popped as many smiles the past week, while Allen sat on the Celtics bench yesterday having a long and encouraging talk with the struggling Delonte West.

The fate of the Celtics lies on how the four lead and how they perform.

“We’ve been trying to do that [Game 3 performance] every game,’’ Ainge said. “And sometimes it’s your fault and other times, it’s the other team. I think the same focus was in Game 1 and Game 2, the same purpose, the same determination. I just think that last night we made shots and it sounds simple, but Game 2 Carmelo [Anthony] made shots. Last night, we made hard shots. Great players making great plays. That’s what makes great teams.

“I hope we realize [today] that winning is hard and we have to play like we’ve been playing in order to win.’’

What Game 3 did for the Celtics is not only provide an opportunity for a much-needed respite, if they happen to win today, but ease the tension and insecurity created by the closeness of the first two games. The Celtics have won the first three games without a significant game from Davis, West, or Jeff Green. Shaquille O’Neal remains on ice and getting a legitimate opportunity to rehabilitate his calf injury instead of rushing back.

So there are many improvements to make over the next few days. Given the climate of the postseason and how lower-seeded teams are competing with their higher-seeded counterparts, Boston has actually been one of the impressive teams.

That appeared highly unlikely a few weeks ago when the Celtics dropped games to the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Wizards and were blown out by the Bulls and Heat. It’s too early to determine whether they have actually flipped the switch, but the attitude of the team is more focused.

It took them a few months to get over the Perkins trade and realize that this is the roster they are going to battle with in April. There will be no late additions. Rasheed Wallace is not walking through that door. It’s up to the players to respond to the intensity and significance of the situation, and so far they have done that in this series.

“I like what I have seen,’’ Ainge said. “Our four All-Stars are playing well, we are getting great production from Jermaine O’Neal, and our bench has done better than people give them credit for. I am completely confident in these guys and always have been.

“There is a lot of work to do, but I like our team. I like where we are.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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