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Easy does it for Celtics -- for now

WALTHAM -- The Celtics are on a slow roll, the kind that comes with a three-game winning streak and days off between games. Boston is biding its time until Wednesday, when it plays Washington at the MCI Center. Until then, there remains momentum to sustain. Coach Doc Rivers gave players Saturday off, then conducted an open practice yesterday for select fans with ties to Fox Sports New England. The real work begins today.

"I'd love to keep playing right now because you've got to pay for it later anyway," said Rivers. "It's a lot of days off [now]. December is as bad a month as maybe I've ever seen. I've never seen anything like that. That's fine. At the end of the year, you play 82.

"In a lot of ways, it's not bad, I guess, because we still have a lot of things we need to keep working on, being more solid and executing better on the defensive and offensive ends. We are still learning each other. That makes it not bad. I just hate this break in the season, especially when you've won three in a row.

"And the bad news is the Wizards lost [Saturday] bad to Cleveland and lost to Dallas [yesterday]. Then, they're going to have these two days of rallying, [where they say], `We've got to beat the next team.' Unfortunately, we're the next team."

The game in Washington also marks the end of what could be the easiest part of the Celtics' schedule. Boston returns home to face San Antonio and Seattle, then it's back-to-back sets on the road with rival Cleveland sandwiched in between. In December, the Celtics have 16 games in 31 days with only six at home. In other words, they need to do as much learning and fine-tuning as they can before practice time becomes scarce.

So far, the Celtics have proven quick studies. After abysmal performances on the glass in losses to the Sixers and Pacers (outrebounded, 93-66), the Celtics focused more and proceeded to outrebound the Knicks, Trail Blazers, and Bobcats by a combined 127-110. It's no coincidence winning the battle of the boards resulted in three victories.

"One thing we've done well the last three games has been rebounding," said Rivers. "As a whole, I think we're starting to get that. Guys are all crashing the glass. They're starting to understand how important it is. And they understand it can't be just Mark [Blount] or just Raef [LaFrentz]. It has to be everybody. That has stood out in the [last three] games. Our defense is doing a really nice job and our offense is coming. We're efficient offensively, but we're not on our stride all the time."

Rivers pointed out the Celtics rank second in the league in points allowed (86.6 per game), behind only Portland (85.5). On the other end, Boston is second in field goal percentage, shooting 48.3 percent, behind Utah (51.6). While it's still early, those numbers mark a significant improvement from last season, when the Celtics shot 44.3 percent and allowed opponents to score 96.7 points per game.

"We ain't won nothing," said forward Paul Pierce. "We've won three games. We don't have a swagger. We're still trying to find out about ourselves.

"We're still a young team, but I think it's good for us to win right now because it gives us a sense of confidence that we can win. [The schedule] doesn't matter to me. We need practice just as much as we need games, because we feel like we're not at the point where we need to be." . . .
Some weeks it seems like Gary Payton commutes between Boston and Los Angeles, raising a family on the West Coast while working on the East Coast. Payton left Saturday morning to visit his family and tend to his wife, who has been in and out of the hospital. He returned to Boston late last night, missing yesterday's practice. Rivers tried to find the veteran point guard a flight home Friday night.

"I'm pretty lenient with families," said Rivers. "This is not a Gary Payton rule. Walter [McCarty] missed a practice last week because his wife wasn't feeling great. It's been a terrible two weeks [for Payton] and I think he's going to be a better player if his life is straightened out than he will be sitting at home on the phone."

Another missing point guard could return to practice soon, possibly as early as today. Rookie Delonte West will undergo X-rays on his fractured right thumb today to see if he can be cleared to play. West did not wear a brace on his thumb while working out on a StairMaster as his teammates scrimmaged. He believes he should be ready to come off the injured list this week, hopefully in time for the game against the Wizards in his hometown.

"I get an X-ray [today] and I'm real excited about that," said West. "I feel like I'm ready to get back on the court sometime this week. I'm pushing for Washington." 

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