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Boston Celtics

CELTICS

Just hope for the best

Trades can't save season

After the last two weeks of embarrassments, more and more Celtics fans are ready to deliver the explosives to the Garden themselves. They want to blow this team up.

The appetite for destruction is understandable. The Celtics stagger into the All-Star break losers in seven of their last eight and five straight. They dumped a pair by double digits to a mediocre (at best) Detroit team, lowlighted by Rajon Rondo chucking the ball at an official to earn a two-game suspension and more tarnish for his rep. They looked pathetic on national TV in Dallas on Monday and then gave up a ghastly 72 points in the first half at Oklahoma City two days later.

Boston's perpetual health issues - seven of its top eight players have missed games with injuries - is surely a large part of the problem. Still, it's tempting to want to demolish this team out of sheer frustration and disappointment, to believe that whatever debris lands in Boston after the explosion has to be better than this. Except that's not truly the case.

Patience might be painful

right now for the Celtics, but chances are it's their best course. While rumors are rampant as usual, the NBA landscape doesn't seem full of impact deals waiting to be made. Even if it was, the Celtics don't have the pieces it takes to trade for a new foundation, but they might (if healthy) still have a puncher's chance to contend in this shortened season. It may not be much of a chance, but it feels like better odds than trying to remodel into a winner in this climate.

Let's start at the trading block. Rondo is the Celtics' most valuable commodity, but it would be foolish to let him go for anything other than a superstar. Right now the only two players of that quality who are on the block are Dwight Howard, who hasn't listed Boston among his acceptable trade destinations, and Deron Williams, who seems ready to hit free agency. If Ainge could somehow work a trade and extension for either of these two, Rondo would likely have to be included in the deal and it would be a no-brainer. Otherwise, Ainge should keep his point guard.

The Celtics need to get younger and more athletic, and as difficult and temperamental as Rondo can be, he is the team's most athletic player and he just turned 26 on Tuesday. Sure, Rondo has a shaky jump shot, which makes him less effective than the other elite point guards (Williams, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose), but the jumper is improving and Rondo isn't paid like those other point guards. With three years and $36 million left on his contract, Rondo's salary is fair (a treat in the NBA) and gives Boston the flexibility to add multiple elite players around him.

After Rondo, the Celtics commodities aren't that valuable. No contender is going to want to give up much to rent Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen for half a season (both of their contracts are up at the end of the year). And no team out of contention is going to want them, either, not with both nearing retirement. Ainge would end up taking on bad contracts and middling talent in deals for those two. Paul Pierce (with more gas in his tank and two more years on his contract) does has more value than Garnett or Allen, and maybe Ainge can land some young talent for Pierce, but it would have to be an Auerbach-ian swindle. Plus, if Pierce goes, that championship window that has been closed to a slim crack will be slammed shut.

After the first half from Oklahoma City on Wednesday, it looked like that window was already shut. If you kept watching after halftime, however, there were some positive signs as the Celtics cut a 27-point, third-quarter deficit down to six with just over three minutes left to play.

'I just love the spirit of this team,' Doc Rivers said after the 119-104 loss. 'I told them after the game, 'If we play like (we did in the second half of the game) in the second half of the season, and (we're) healthy, it's going to be tough to beat us.' '

As encouraging as Boston's spirit was, the best sign for the Celtics came from the legs of Garnett, who looked more explosive than he has all season. The 35-year-old attacked the rim for dunks instead of the finesse layups that have come on with age, he was aggressive in the low and mid-post against two of the best interior defenders in the league (Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka), and he finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks.

'I thought he was very uplifting,' Rivers said. 'Kevin has a hip flexor, which you can't get injured by playing on, but it hurts like heck to play with. He just gutted it out and he knew we only had three bigs out there. He was terrific to watch and compete. If we play like that, most nights with a full team, I think we are going to be great.'

It was probably no coincidence that Garnett looked so lively after missing the last three games (one with injury, two for a family matter). He may not be able to keep up the pace for the rest of this condensed regular season, but once the playoffs start and there's more time between games, Garnett and the other older Celtics will have the time to rest.

There were other positive signs from Oklahoma City - the defense of fill-in starters Avery Bradley (who is growing more comfortable in the NBA in his second year) and Mikael Pietrus (who is growing more comfortable now in his third month in Boston); the continued development of rookie JaJuan Johnson (six points, two rebounds and solid defensive rotations in 15 minutes); and the fact Boston rallied despite being seriously shorthanded with Rondo finishing his suspension and Jermaine O'Neal, Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox out with injury.

The Celtics will need to get some, if not all, of those injured players healthy to help them get out of the No. 7 or 8 playoff spot (they're in eighth now) and avoid a first-round matchup with Miami or Chicago. Then they'll need more inspired play from Garnett, more maturity from Rondo, more leadership and points from Pierce and Allen, and more production from the likes of Pietrus, Bradley, Johnson, Bass and Wilcox if they want to make any kind of playoff run.

Sure, it's a long list of needs, but it would be even longer after a demolition.

(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com.)

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