EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

October 29, 2006

The future is now for Celtics

BOSTON - The Massachusetts State Lottery last week unveiled the $5 Celtics lottery ticket.

If that's not the only lottery the C's are participating in, then there could be a housecleaning this spring.

The rebuilding Celtics received a mulligan last year, but with coach Doc Rivers making $5 million a year and Danny Ainge earning a reported $3 million-plus a year, anything short of the playoffs may not be good enough.

Could Boston be worse than last year's 33-49 team?

Some of the so-called experts think so. ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson picked the C's to finish last out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and Sports Illustrated predicted they'll finish 14th.

The doomsaying is music to the ears of guard Delonte West.

"I get happy when I see that," he beamed. "It makes me smile. (Otherwise) we may play with a swagger we haven't earned. We accept the underdog role. It will make us play harder."

Wally Szczerbiak also scoffs at the critics.

Does he mind the lack of respect?

"Not at all," said Szczerbiak. "I've always been overlooked my entire career. That's the beauty of sports, you're judged on your performance. This team has competitors. We want to make the playoffs and we want to make some noise in the playoffs."

If the two most important positions are point guard and center, Boston could be in trouble. Shotblocker supreme Theo Ratliff was supposed to be the focal point of Boston's defense, which has been porous since Jim O'Brien left town.

But the ever-brittle Ratliff, who has missed at least 19 games six of the last eight years, is on the injured list again with a cranky back.

"Theo's injury is a factor. A huge factor. We need him," said Rivers of the 33-year-old defensive whiz, who was acquired along with Telfair from Portland in the draft day deal for Raef LaFrentz, Dan Dickau and the draft rights to hot-shot rookie guard Randy Foye.

Behind him are Kendrick Perkins, a tough rebounder and defender who like Ratliff is an offensive liability, and Michael Olowokandi, who warmed the pine last year and was the longest of longshots to return.

At the point Boston is extremely green, extremely small, and extremely limited in its outside shooting with Sebastian Telfair and Rajon Rondo, the long-armed rookie who may turn out to be the steal of the draft.

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