Thursday January 17th, 2008

Scot Pollard sat in front of his locker before a recent game at TD Banknorth Garden and agreed that, yes, with all the attention given to the Celtics' Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, people have tended to overlook the "Pollard Factor." The 11th-year center, who has toiled (mostly in obscurity) for six teams, elaborated on that point.

"As someone pointed out to me," Pollard said, "you also have to look at what happens to teams after I leave. They tend to fall apart. It happened with Indiana, Sacramento and, now, Cleveland."

Pollard's tongue was planted firmly in his cheek, of course, which is where you would expect it to be on a guy who wears a ski cap bearing the message "Male Escort" and claims, "I got it from my wife."

Across the way, backup forward Brian Scalabrine, whose 1.9 scoring average matches Pollard's, was asking strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo when he had time to stretch him.

"You wanna do it now?" Doo asked.

"I just want to make sure it's not interrupting anything else for you," said Scalabrine, whose entry into games prompts a wild response from the fans, just as it did in the four seasons that he played for the Nets. (Translation: Scalabrine wanted to make sure that no one in the regular rotation needed stretching.)

Between Pollard and Scalabrine stood backup guard Eddie House, talking half to himself and half to anyone in the vicinity, revving himself up with chatter, as he always does. I asked him how he fit into this Celtics puzzle. "I'm one small piece amid three big pieces," he said. Then he smiled: "But I am a piece."

The Celtics have one of the crucial elements of a hastily assembled power team: strong support from the reserves. Pollard, House and Scalabrine are all established vets who know the score, as does sixth man James Posey, who won a championship ring with the Miami Heat in 2006 and whose minutes are bound to increase as this season goes on.

In fact, the Celtics' overall chemistry seems to be fine. And, trust me, many journalistic detectives have been scouring the lab, as I did a couple of weeks ago when I hung around the Celtics for several days. The three major pieces seem to have adjusted to each other; the two young starters (point guard Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins) seem to take any criticism well and want to get better; and no one seems to have tuned out coach Doc Rivers.

But the Celtics have shown a mortal streak recently, losing three of four (including back-to-back games to the Washington Wizards) before Wednesday night's solid 100-90 home victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. Yes, their record is still 31-6, best in the league, but the seemingly magical season that began from the opening tip-off on Nov. 2 has run into that brick wall known as reality.

My reaction?

Of course it has.

The Celtics were never a 70-win team, probably not a 60-win team. But can they still be considered a championship-caliber team considering they are trying to make the leap from winning 24 games last season? That's a more difficult question to which we'll return in a minute.

At the very least, the Celtics, with the help of the Pistons, have significantly raised the level of Eastern Conference basketball, a phrase that once indicated (and too often still does) a certain type of game. Maybe it ended 77-73 or, at best, 82-79. Three players fouled out. Somebody lost a tooth. The winning team shot 33.2 percent from the field because the losers shot 27.6 percent. It took 3½ hours, by which time anyone watching it was face down in a bag of Doritos. But the Celtics and Pistons play in-your-face Eastern ball at the highest level.

That doesn't mean, however, that the East has surpassed the West. Not even close. The Big Three in the West -- Spurs, Mavericks and Suns -- doesn't seem quite so big this season, but that's mainly because the Next Six (Lakers, Hornets, Blazers, Nuggets, Warriors and Jazz) are so good. If the East could find a solid No. 3 team (the Magic's struggles since a 16-4 start have diminished some of their early-season buzz), the gap would be reduced, but it would still be there.

But back to the Celtics. What's wrong with them, if anything? Here are a few things:

• They're still learning how to play with each other. They seem at first glance to be a veteran squad, the Big Three having been around collectively for 32 seasons. But five players in the regular rotation are new to Boston.

• And sometimes they show their unfamiliarity with each other in beat-the-clock situations. Who takes the big shot? Pierce? Allen? Garnett? Does Rondo even handle? Dare they go down low to Perkins and depend on him to make a play?

• The weaknesses of Rondo (decision-making) and Perkins (not an instinctive low-post scorer; he spends too much time "gathering himself," in Rivers' words), can be hidden for a while -- like, say, the first two months of the season -- but are eventually exposed.

• The Celtics aren't weak at guard, but they are weak at point guard, the decision-making position, where backups House and Tony Allen are shoot-first players.

• Having come out of the gate fast, determined to prove that three stars could play together, the Celtics are gassed, particularly Pierce, whose scoring average has gone down by almost six points in the last half dozen games. Bothered by a rep for being selfish, Pierce has worked his tail off this season, particularly on defense, but it has taken its toll. Garnett has talked in recent days about his team having lost some of its "energy" and "spunk."

None of these, however, are necessarily fatal flaws. There will be growth and revival and strategic adjustments. True, Boston has yet to play San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix, but the Celtics are 11-0 against Western Conference teams, including road wins against the Lakers and Jazz. And if I had to pencil in two East teams for the conference finals right now, I would make the unsurprising choice of the Celtics and the Pistons.

Perhaps the Celtics' recent swoon will turn out to be a good thing, too, if it served to lower expectations. One popular sign at TD Banknorth before the losing streak read: "Patriots 16-0, Celtics Postseason 16-0." Everyone should now understand that this turnaround from the playoff-less futility of the last two seasons just won't be that easy.

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