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Celtics are dealing in futures

AL JEFFERSON Playing with confidence AL JEFFERSON Playing with confidence

When asked if the Celtics could build off their 77-72 win over the Houston Rockets Monday night, coach Doc Rivers said not until next season. He figures any lessons learned from the team's first and only road win in February -- such as the value of playing defense or the importance of patience -- would not be applied consistently this year.

"We're realistic in that way," said Rivers.

With 26 games remaining, the Celtics still have plenty of opportunities to allow opponents to drive untouched to the basket, to execute rotations improperly, to force shots, to commit turnovers with ill-advised passes. Those are the kind of mistakes that have dropped the team to the bottom of the NBA standings. They are also some of the reasons the Celtics amassed 12 straight road losses and dropped the first four games of the five-game trip that ended with a win over a Houston squad playing without Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

For their own peace of mind, the players do not keep track of losing streaks. That explains how Paul Pierce could say that the Celtics "are in a position where it is going to be very, very tough for us to make the playoffs."

As soon he uttered those words, it seemed Jim Mora would appear in the visitors' locker room at the Toyota Center. Playoffs? You kidding me? The mere mention of the postseason and the Celtics in the same sentence was laughable.

But the Celtics need to believe they have something to play for besides franchise records for futility and a choice between Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the June draft.

"We're just thinking about getting better," said Al Jefferson. "We're not worrying about no picks. We ain't worrying about any of that. We're just thinking about what we need to do to help us win. I worry about today, not tomorrow."

What the Celtics may or may not realize is that they are competing for something else. Each player must show executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge that he can add something if he wants to stay with a young group that has become uncommonly close.

Who adds to team chemistry? Who can accept a supporting role? Who will bring what Ainge deems the best value in a trade? Who will realize his potential sooner rather than later? Who is worth investing more money in? Who deserves a longer look? Who is expendable?

If anything, the recent trip merely confirmed what Ainge should already know about the young players, though there were a couple of pleasant surprises in the play of Leon Powe against the Lakers and the Jazz and Sebastian Telfair against the Rockets. With aggressive, physical play, Powe earned a temporary place in the starting lineup and playing time during key stretches against the Jazz. During the decisive fourth quarter against the Rockets, Telfair proved he can pass first and play defense.

Looking at the rest of the 25-and-under group, there would seem to be some obvious keepers and some players Ainge might grudgingly be willing to package. When the offers start coming in -- and with any high draft pick they will come in droves -- there probably will be no player off-limits.

Of all the young players, Jefferson appears the most integral to the Celtics' future. Even with Oden or Durant, there is plenty of room for Jefferson. According to Rivers, Pierce, Jefferson, and Delonte West are the only players who should be guaranteed playing time. Even with the return of Pierce, Jefferson has remained aggressive on the glass, averaging 16.8 points and 14.0 rebounds during the trip. He is playing with more consistency and more confidence than at any time in his career. He also is playing with a banged-up left hand.

With the promise shown by Rajon Rondo and the likelihood that the rookie will be the Celtics' point guard of the future, West is in limbo. What he lacks in pure point guard skills he makes up for with maturity and court savvy on most nights; that makes it somewhat easier to overlook costly turnovers and questionable decisions. But his role depends in large part upon how quickly Rondo develops.

Ryan Gomes and Kendrick Perkins are interesting cases. Of all the players on the roster, they seem best-suited to accepting complementary roles. No matter how Gomes is used, he comes through with consistent performances. While Perkins has been frustratingly inconsistent and has seen his role diminish dramatically, he has not complained. He also has not blamed a case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot for derailing his season, though it has. Gerald Green remains a work in progress.

Obviously, the same can be said for the entire team. And the one certainty is that the pace of that progress will not yield big gains any time soon.