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Celtics feel comfortable with presence of mercurial Marbury

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This was not the Stephon Marbury the New York media had become accustomed to. At least, not at first.

Marbury first emerged from the trainer's room about 65 minutes before the opening tip of Wednesday night's game between the Nets and Celtics. As he headed to his locker, Marbury was followed by a herd of media, many if not most of who had traversed the Lincoln Tunnel from Manhattan to chronicle his every movement. With the hot camera lights on him, Marbury was cordial. Affable, even. He answered a few softball questions about leaving New York, coming to Boston and having a chance to compete for a championship. He spoke calmly. He smiled. After a few minutes, several local reporters exchanged quizzical looks.

Was this really Stephon Marbury?

Then the cameras turned off. And the real Stephon Marbury returned.

He was asked how he felt playing the two-guard, a position he refused to play in New York.

"As long as I'm on the court, it doesn't matter," said Marbury.

He was asked if he had talked to incumbent point guard Rajon Rondo about his role with the team.

"I'm just here to help them win a championship," Marbury deadpanned.

After that, Marbury brushed past the dozen or so media and disappeared back into the trainer's room.

"At least we know it's really him," remarked one reporter.

Fortunately for Marbury, his attitudes toward the New York media is of no concern to the Celtics (though it is probably an accurate depiction of his personality -- there is a reason 22 percent of the NBA players who responded to an SI players' poll this week named Marbury as the player they would least like to have on their team). Boston's only concern is his ability to contribute. Which he has. Sort of.

In his first game with the Celtics, an adrenaline infused Marbury scored eight points in 13 minutes. Two nights later, Marbury crashed back to earth, scoring zero points in 12 minutes with two careless turnovers. On Wednesday, with the crowd booing the ex-Net every time he touched the ball, Marbury put up another goose egg in the scoring column. But while Marbury's numbers aren't gaudy, he has given veterans Ray Allen and Paul Pierce valuable pine time, and, while not being in game shape yet, has shown that he is in surprisingly good condition for someone who hadn't played in an NBA regular season game in 13 months.

"I've been surprised [by his conditioning]," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I was very surprised by that. Not playing since preseason and not playing NBA games since last January, I'm really surprised at his conditioning. The last two days, we went hard at practice. And I think he found that we don't take breaks in practice. We didn't sub him out in either practice. He was on the floor the entire two practices and I thought he withstood it pretty good. Now today he might not have anything left, but that would be fine, too. That wouldn't bother me at all, because I think the conditioning part has to come and as that comes, the timing will come. I just tell him every day, 'Don't try to fit in. Just play. It's not a one-way street. It's our job to embrace and grab you in.'"

Of greater concern, according to team insiders, continues to be the effect Marbury's presence has on Rondo. Rondo has said repeatedly he is happy to have a quality backup like Marbury around, likening the situation to when Sam Cassell was brought in late last season. But several insiders said they were surprised to see Marbury playing eight fourth-quarter minutes in Friday's win over Indiana while Rondo sat on the bench. Absurd as it may sound, a legitimate concern for the Celtics is to make sure their third-year playmaker doesn't start looking over his shoulder.

On Wednesday, Rivers sounded like a coach not concerned about Marbury being a distraction.

"I did a lot [of homework on Marbury]," said Rivers. "I made the calls to a lot of people. And I got good reports and bad reports. But obviously, I got enough that told me to go get him."

The declining economy has had a profound impact on the NBA, with layoffs occurring league-wide and teams slashing payroll to try and avoid getting hit with the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax at the end of the season.

But that hasn't been the only belt-tightening. At most NBA games there are usually three or four advanced scouts in attendance to chart another team's plays and submit a detailed report to the coaching staff for an upcoming game. But lately the number of scouts at arenas has dwindled, with teams that are out of playoff contention choosing to save a few bucks by keeping their scouts at home.

"It's not surprising to see teams that are out of it pull their guys back," one scout said. "What's surprising is that it is happening a few weeks earlier this year. That's definitely related to the economy."

It will be interesting to see how involved Yao Ming is in the Rockets' offense for the rest of the season. Yao has felt underutilized in Rick Adelman's read-and-react system, which is the polar opposite of Jeff Van Gundy's low-post oriented attack that involved Yao on nearly every possession. Some league insiders feel that while both Adelman and Yao are among the top coaches and players, respectively, their marriage to each other is doomed to fail. Adelman prefers big men who can step out on the perimeter and facilitate the offense from the elbow, like he had with Brad Miller, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac in Sacramento. Yao is a classic back-to-the-basket player who has never looked comfortable playing so far from the rim.

"Great coach, great player," an Eastern Conference scout said. "Bad mix."

The Rockets have shown no indication that they are open to trading Yao (who has two-years and $34 million remaining on his contract) or firing Adelman (who has one-year and a team option remaining on his original four-year deal). Yao is a cash cow for Houston, and the idea of dealing a 28-year-old franchise center would seem absurd. But several executives feel that the Rockets will see what the market is for Yao at the end of the season.

"They would be crazy not to at least ask around," an Eastern Conference GM said.

After watching Allen torch New Jersey for 16 points Wednesday, including a game-tying three-pointer late in the fourth quarter, you have to wonder: How long can the 33-year-old play at this high a level?

"I don't think he's going to lose his shot any time soon," Rivers said. "And as long as you can shoot in our league, you can probably play in our league for a long time."

Allen says several variables -- the state of the Celtics and his family, to name a couple -- will determine how long he is going to play. A Western Conference GM, citing Allen's age and recent ankle surgeries, said that Allen will probably only command a three-year deal worth between $25-30 million when he becomes a free agent in 2010. But Rivers says there is one overriding reason why Allen can "probably play as long as he wants to."

"When he gets to 50, if you put Ray Allen behind the three, would you guard him?" Rivers asked. "You sure would."

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