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Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff January 15, 2009 05:59 AM

The truth is that the real 2008-09 Boston Celtics rank somewhere between the roaring juggernaut that ripped off 19 straight victories and had some of us daydreaming of eclipsing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ single-season record of 72 wins, and the scattershot crew that at times recently has appeared to be paying bizarre homage to the 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies. Say, is that Brian Scalabrine or Big Country Reeves?

The afflictions that have ailed the Celtics in recent weeks are nothing that the All-Star break and a savvy acquisition or two by Danny Ainge can’t cure. Joe Smith would be ideal, and I suspect that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen are taking turns whispering in the allegedly retired P.J. Brown’s ear about reboarding the ship for the stretch run. With good health and the appropriate personnel tweaks, this is still a 60-something-victory team with legitimate championship aspirations. But right now, some concerns are very real, particularly regarding the state of the bench.

I didn’t want to do this, but I can’t stop myself — I must lament the departure of James Posey. It’s clear that a reasonable facsimile of the tough, versatile swingman isn’t going to come walking through that door, and his absence is making the Celtics’ quest for banner No. 18 considerably more challenging than it might have been had he remained a Celtic. We’ve been reluctant to fault Ainge for sticking to his offer of three years when the New Orleans Hornets gave Posey four in their winning bid, but it’s entirely possible that the general manager’s long-term vision and fiscal prudence may end up costing the Celtics a championship in the short run — like, say, this season. Perhaps no one will be able to prevent a certain 6-foot-8-inch, 270-pound runaway train in Cleveland from achieving his goal of NBA domination this season, but a Posey-Pierce tandem would have had as good a chance as anyone.

As for the holdovers on the bench, only Leon Powe passes for dependable at the moment, and he seems to find his way into Doc Rivers’s doghouse for the slightest of infractions. Powe’s fellow big man Glen Davis remains an affable enigma in his second season; he might carve out a rewarding 12-year niche as a rugged inside scorer off the bench, or he could be the next John “Hot Plate” Williams and find himself out of the league in three years. Five seasons into his career, Tony Allen still plays like a puppy in relentless pursuit of his tail. Eddie House is, to be blunt, useless if his shot isn’t failing ... and too often lately, his shot isn’t falling, though to his credit, he keeps firing them up with the confidence that the next one will mark the beginning of a hot streak. Scalabrine is a fan favorite and a Rivers favorite, but it’s a stretch to expect him to accomplish much more than putting up a good fight on defense and knocking down an occasional wide-open jumper.

Rivers could solve some current issues by giving his veteran starters more minutes. To his credit, in moments of frustration, he manages to keep the big picture in sharp focus, with much the same reassuring manner his friend Terry Francona deftly utilizes during the frenzied summer months at Fenway Park. Rivers refuses to put a few more miles on his superstars’ legs simply to humble the Charlotte Bobcats in a random January game. Patience is among his most important — and unheralded — attributes as a coach.

In retrospect, it’s a tribute to the uncommon competitiveness of these players — particularly twin engines Pierce and Garnett — that they could play with such unyielding intensity for as long as they did. Last season ended with that delirious rout of the Lakers on June 17 in the 108th game of the season. As of Wednesday, the Celtics have played the most games in the league (42), including five in the past seven days. The past season and a half has been a rewarding but relentless grind. You’re damned right they have a right to be weary.

And because they wear the championship belt, they get hit with their opponent’s best shot every single night, with the consequences sometimes being that they have to endure yapping from the likes of D.J. Augustin after they are felled by a lucky punch. A rookie, talking smack about a champion. Imagine the hubris. The Celtics meet Charlotte again April 1. I had to look up that date. I suspect Pierce and his vengeful teammates already have it circled.

No, their recent struggles — which have manifested themselves most noticeably with step-slow defensive rotations and midrange jumpers that clang a few inches shy of their target — are not due to any loss of “swagger,” which has replaced “intangibles” as the ridiculous sports buzzword of choice for those who depend on such vagaries in lieu of knowledge. They are struggling because several key players — most recently Kendrick Perkins and his apparent trick shoulder — are nagged by more minor injuries than J.D. Drew. And have I mentioned the thin bench yet?

Which brings us to Starbury. When the concept of Stephon Marbury as a Celtic was first floated, I was somewhere between resistant and appalled. For all of his vast ability — or at least the vast ability of his youth, for it’s hard to determine what he has left since he hasn’t suited up for an NBA game this season — he’s the ultimate me-first player, and I don’t think anything is going to change him at this point, including a chance to salvage his career with a championship-contending team. I’m skeptical that he even believes his career needs salvaging.

But then I considered something that I imagine is one of Ainge’s guiding principles: What Would Red Do? And Red Auerbach’s philosophy was that if you add a talented malcontent to a winning team with a strong and established group of leaders, he will have no choice but to get in line or get lost. It always was fun when Red brought in perceived problem children — Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson among them — only to watch them grow into vital contributors for the Celtics. And so my tune has changed: If Marbury becomes available, Ainge wants him, and Garnett and the rest are cool with it, well, we should be, too.

Even as the Posey departure hovers over Ainge’s head, we trust him to do the right thing. The same goes for the accomplished core of players who remain. After all, we’re 150 games into what Sean Grande likes to calls the New Big Three Era, and when the stakes have been highest, these guys haven’t let us down yet.

OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at finn@globe.com

13 comments so far...
  1. Fan favorite? Scalabrine is a joke and everyone enjoys a good laugh. No one wants to see him on the floor in any critical situation and frankly I'd rather see more Walker and O'Bryant and less Scal and Davis. I am not a huge Doc fan but as long as Coach T is coaching the D his flaws will be hidden. The more I see Scalabrine and hear they are actually thinking about playing Sam I Am I realize you are right we need better pieces otherwise Doc is going to actually give these vets critical minutes down the stretch. That is a scary thought.

    Posted by Sean M January 15, 09 10:57 AM
  1. wow chad! great article! i want marbury. if the patriots can bring in troublemakers like corey dillon and randy moss then the celtics have the locker room capable of bringing some like a marbury into the locker room and either he follows them and is a good teammate or hes out. But I agree with you and every other sports writer in Boston saying that we need a big man like pj brown or joe smith. great article!

    Posted by Mike January 15, 09 12:45 PM
  1. The C's brought in Sam Cassel last season, and he was every bit a selfish player. Were it not for a few key shots down the stretch and his lack of playing time this year, I'm sure there'd be even more grumbling. That being said, I don't think Marbury is a good fit for this team. He'd be trying to lead the bench just like Sam, and his overinflated ego would make him think he's better than the younger guys on the bench. (Whether he is remains to be seen). Peirce, Garnett, and Allen can't be babysitting a veteran who can't be a team player. If Ainge signs him up it better be on a per diem contract.

    Posted by AW January 15, 09 02:53 PM
  1. Sean M is right... Scalabrine is NOT a fan favorite, just a way for the fans to get a good laugh. He's awful. These last few nights with Scals as a starter have been ridiculous. Get rid of him ASAP!

    And Doc is WAY too hard on Leon Powe. For every little mistake Powe makes, he also makes ten amazing plays, and is the best the Celtics bench has to offer. Doc is not NEARLY as hard on anyone else. Why so harsh, Doc?

    Posted by Kate January 15, 09 04:18 PM
  1. good point on marbury, at the end there, tho sam-me remains available down the road. otherwise, a pretty boring article with nothing to add - simply rehashes the same points you find regularly, and with far more nuance and subtlety, in the celt fan blogs

    Posted by celtic pride January 15, 09 05:52 PM
  1. Nice analysis Chad. Thanks for the insights.

    Posted by Gary January 15, 09 05:54 PM

  1. You said it all man.
    Joe Smith is okay. But i'd rather go with stackhouse than starbury.
    the guy is a poison no matter where he is, period.

    Posted by akketangka January 15, 09 07:35 PM
  1. I love Leon off the bench, but I think Doc is putting too much offensive pressure on him. Running the offense through him, Leon just doesn't have the sophisticated post moves yet to take bigger players 1 on 1...he's more of a clean-up scorer.

    Posted by Jeff January 15, 09 09:34 PM
  1. Scalabrine is not a joke. He's our best team defender off the bench. And James Posey got FIVE years....we upped our offer to four. Big distinction.

    Posted by thegipper January 15, 09 10:37 PM
  1. Posey signed with the Hornets for four years and $25 million. Before you offer a correction, make sure you're right.

    Posted by chad January 15, 09 10:48 PM
  1. Jeff - close, but not quite. Leon 1-on-1 is just fine against big guys, bigger guys, and much bigger guys.

    The problem is against a defense that sags to the middle (like Cleveland last week). Leon doesn't know where or when to pass out of the double-team, and all his clever "create contact, then create space" moves are useless when the rest of the defense is clogging the lane and forcing him to put shots up right in the face of those bigger defenders.

    Posted by mike January 16, 09 03:35 AM
  1. Is Camby available?

    Posted by rch January 16, 09 07:32 AM
  1. WWRD------What would Red do? and What would Riggins do?

    Posted by Frank January 16, 09 08:34 AM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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