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Stuck in the middle

Posted by Scott Souza November 6, 2008 05:55 AM

Back in his AAU days in Oakland, Leon Powe got used to playing the center spot. When you’re that age, unless you have the handle of a Magic Johnson or the explosiveness of a LeBron James, most muscular guys over 6-foot-6 know they’re headed straight for the post.

At a generous 6-foot-8 — he is probably closer to 6-foot-7 — Powe was content to bang in high school and even in college; he was an All-America power forward at the University of California.

But when it came time to turn pro, Powe figured it was time for him to catch a break. Although the adjustments of playing away from the basket would be daunting, he was pretty sure his center days were over.

“I was thinking eventually I would be a three [small forward], maybe a four [power forward],” he said of his expectations after the Celtics traded for the pick used to select him in the second round of the 2006 draft.

Three years later, not only is Powe still in the post, but he has become the defending champions’ rock off the bench there. He started in place of an injured Kendrick Perkins at center in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and has been the primary backup at center so far this season.

Through the first two weeks of the campaign, Powe has already found himself looking up nearly a foot at Houston’s Yao Ming and more than eight inches while guarding Cleveland’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

At first glance, Powe always appears to be on the wrong end of the mother of all mismatches. But as soon as opposing teams try to exploit it, they often find Powe plays a lot bigger than his size.

Powe knows he doesn’t have the height and length to bother a shot around the rim, so instead he tries to use his low center of gravity to force taller opponents out of the paint and away from easy opportunities.

“You’ve got to do your work early — pretty much above the 3-point line,” he said. “You can’t give up too much ground, because if you give up a lot of ground he’s going to be able to just turn and shoot that hook over you. You’ve got to keep them as far away from the basket as possible and make them take contested jump shots.

“I just try to use my strength, my muscle, to keep them at bay. In this league, you only have to do it for two or three seconds before you’re going to get help.”

Rivers has become a believer. After playing Powe sparingly in his first season-plus in Boston, the coach went to the crowd favorite extensively in the second half of last year and the playoffs. With P.J. Brown’s retirement — for now, anyway — Powe has earned the backup center minutes over 7-footer Patrick O’Bryant.

“I look at it as a lot of the same position,” he said. “Four and five, sometimes they’re much bigger [at center], sometimes they are a little quicker [at forward], but it’s the way you guard people. You have to be extra smart out there when you are a guy like me.”

Heavy rotation
After being blasted early in his Boston tenure for playing too many players in haphazard fashion, Rivers has had a relatively tight nine-player rotation early in the year. Powe, Glen Davis, Eddie House, and Tony Allen get most of the bench minutes.

Brian Scalabrine, O’Bryant, and Gabe Pruitt were the other active players in the first three games (Sam Cassell and rookies Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens were inactive) and received a bit more time in Indiana on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday.

Rivers said the rotation “evolves over the course of a season,” but it appears first crack at minutes will go to those who most helped win banner No. 17.

Payday coming
The decision to pick up Rajon Rondo’s fourth-year rookie contract option last week was an easy one. Negotiations will likely get a lot more expensive next year, when Rondo is due his first contract extension.

The Celtics got a bargain with the four-year, $16 million deal Kendrick Perkins signed last year, but that was before he started on a championship team. With Rondo already generating All-Star talk, his contract may be the team’s first big money issue since the Celtics crafted their $60 million troika of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.

Scott Souza covers the Celtics for OT and can be reached at ssouza@globe.com

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