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JACKIE MACMULLAN

For starters, some hits and misses

The world of preseason is a blissful place. Everyone starts out undefeated, and even when you lose a game, it doesn't count. It gives coaches time to tinker, and experiment, and lay out a grand blueprint earmarked with fervent hopes and ambitions.

Who can blame the Celtics for dreaming that anything is possible? The Red Sox are the World Series champions, the Patriots are defending Super Bowl champions, while Boston's basketball entry, the most decorated sports franchise in town, is long overdue for some confetti of its own.

With a number of the Red Sox players strolling through the FleetCenter last night wearing Celtic warmups and the grins of champions, Celtics captain Paul Pierce, caught up in the moment, exclaimed, "Let's make it three in a row, y'all."

A touch of hyperbole, to be sure, but hey, let's not ruin the moment. The Celtics opened their 2004-05 season with a new coach, new players, a new attitude, and, with any luck, a new resolve. They do not need to win 21 in a row, as the Patriots did, to regain their standing. Nor do they need to win a championship, as their baseball counterparts have done.

They simply need to play hard, play together, and win some games.

To accomplish all three last night against division rival Philadelphia, and old friend and former Celtics coach Jim O'Brien, would have merely been an added bonus.

It sounded good, anyway. The Celtics led by 18 points in the third quarter, clung tight to a 6-point lead with five minutes remaining, then watched it get wrenched from their grasp by Philadelphia's irrepressible Allen Iverson.

Thus, a new coach, new players, and a new attitude merely yielded new problems last night.

Like how to close out a win. "This one's our fault, man," conceded Ricky Davis. "We lost our focus. We've got to be mentally tougher than that."

You can be sure first-year coach Doc Rivers will be tossing and turning over this one. Until the final 10 minutes of the game, his players did everything he could have hoped for: They ran the ball, they shot the ball, they defended the ball. Understand that the Celtics scored 83 points through three quarters, and shot 57.7 percent in that stretch. It should not shock you to learn the high score and the high shooting percentage were the result of transition baskets, exactly the style of basketball Danny Ainge has been pining for since he took over this operation.

Will the Celtics be able to continue their uptempo style throughout the grind of an 82-game schedule? That's a question for another night.

It would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions after one game, but for those who were wondering whether Gary Payton would bother to give his all to the boys in green, you should have seen him jawing at veteran official Jack Nies after he was whistled with his fourth foul at 9:38 of the third quarter, and was forced to leave the game. He left having submitted a tidy line of 8 assists and 6 points (he was 2 of 2 from the floor and 1 of 1 from the line) to that point. He was enjoying himself, broken thumb and all, and was providing the kind of backcourt leadership and control that has been missing from this lineup for years.

But the temper of the combustible Payton hurt him at the most inopportune time. When he was tagged with his fifth foul with just over eight minutes to play, he lingered a little too long in Nies's face, and Nies slapped him with a technical.

Without Payton, who was limited to 28 foul-plagued minutes, Boston struggled to reestablish its flow offensively, while Philly generated some momentum off turnovers, easy baskets, and free throws.

"Gary takes a lot of pressure off me," said Pierce. "I don't have to worry about a lot of ballhandling responsibilities. When he's not in the game, it hurts us. But that's when other guys have to answer the call."

There were some recurring themes to Boston's performance. Once again, turnovers (19) and rebounding (a 41-35 deficit) were sore spots. Once again, Pierce logged heavy minutes (41), took tons of shots (23), scored 35 of the team's points, and turned the ball over too much (five times). He was counting on Payton, Davis, and Raef LaFrentz deflecting some of the offensive attention from him this year, but that only happened in spurts.

It was not an explosive, Hey-I'm-Back! kind of night for LaFrentz, who is recovering from knee surgery that kept him away from the game for most of last season. He did, however, come up with a couple of key plays when the game was on the line. The Sixers had wiped out an 18-point third-quarter deficit and cut it to 2 with 7:47 left, and the Celtics needed a basket -- badly. LaFrentz delivered with a jumper from the foul circle that swished through and temporarily stopped the bleeding. After a Sixers miss, he hit the floor and pounced on a loose ball to keep Boston's possession alive. Those contributions helped to ease the pain of a disjointed first half in which LaFrentz offered up a goose egg off the glass.

"It was a funny kind of game," LaFrentz observed. "[We] got down big [by 12 in the first quarter], then up big. But I think there were some positives to take out of this."

The negatives were the array of blown opportunities down the stretch that included consecutive misses by Davis (a wing jumper), Payton (a three that rolled in and out), and Mark Blount (a 3-footer underneath) that left the suddenly somber Fleet crowd shuffling out, feeling as though someone had stolen their wallet.

It is only one game, albeit a demoralizing one. You hope that rookie Tony Allen will get more minutes, and that Al Jefferson will improve with warp speed. You hope there are better days ahead. You hope the dreams are grander than this.

"I think we're going to be fine," said Rivers in one room.

"I think we're going to be fine," said Pierce in another room, moments later.

Tomorrow is a new day, a new game. Only now, the games really do count.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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