Sichting Shines in Ainge's Absence for 86 Cs

Danny Ainge says he's ready to return to the Celtics ' starting lineup against the Denver Nuggets tomorrow. Ainge played 24 minutes in four games after twisting his left ankle Jan. 2 at Indiana.

"The ankle's 100 percent," Ainge said after practice yesterday. "I'm playing, absolutely."

Jerry Sichting started three games and shot 16 for 22 as Boston beat New Jersey, Cleveland and Atlanta in the Garden.

"Jerry is a great player and we all have a lot of confidence in him," Ainge said. "Everybody knew what he was capable of doing."

Meanwhile, coach K.C. Jones will be glad to have a healthy Ainge back. Ainge is having his best pro season and ranks fourth in NBA free-throw percentage (57-63, .905), 11th in field-goal percentage (.557) and eighth in three-point shooting (12-32, .375).

The Celtics have long prided themselves on acquiring role players. Sichting is the latest in a line that goes back to the Red Auerbach era and continues to thrive under K.C. Jones. Boston believes that raw talent must be complemented by instinct and intelligence, and Sichting fits the mold.

People said this about Bailey Howell in the '60s and Paul Silas in the '70s. It was a similar refrain three years after Chris Ford, now a Celtic assistant, showed up. Ford played on the 1981 NBA championship team. More recently, it was Quinn Buckner, who came from Milwaukee to get an NBA ring in 1984.

Perhaps they'll be saying it about Sichting.

"I've always admired him as a player," said Ford, who sees some of himself in the 6-foot-1-inch Sichting. "He does all the little things well. That's what kept him in the league and is why he's here with us now. He's a very sound, fundamental player.

"Actually, it's an enviable position to be in. You come from a team (Indiana) where you're used to losing night in and night out. Then you come to a situation where you're winning; it's a tremendous opportunity."

Until Ainge's injury, the contributions of Sichting, who was traded to Boston last summer for two draft choices, were not readily apparent. He is not flashy and his 5.7 average in 35 games is modest. Even if Ainge's skills diminish, the Celtic guard of the '80s likely will be rookie Sam Vincent, who is faster and loves to penetrate.

But in his six games, Sichting hit a sizzling 73 percent of his shots (16 of 22). He also kept alive a 97 percent free-throw shooting average (28-29). He averaged 27.0 minutes during that stretch, up from his season average of 19.7.

These are the kind of numbers the Celtics have been looking for. They need a zone breaker to combat double teams inside and sagging defenses. Buckner could do everything but this.

"Just playing has given me some more confidence," Sichting said yesterday at Hellenic College. "Hopefully, it has given the coaches more confidence in me. It's been tough, especially if you're used to starting and playing. But I had an idea of my role when I came here and I accepted it. Now I feel at least more comfortable.

"When you play 25-30 minutes, it's a lot easier to get into the flow. With less time, you try to do the same things, but you usually play a little more conservatively."

For years, Indiana fans have lamented the defection of Larry Bird to Boston. But Sichting is also a Hoosier, from Martinsville, Ind., and played at Purdue, where he set a career record for assists (386).

Sichting's ability to provide leadership was one of the reasons the Celtics liked him. He led the Pacers in assists for three season, played acceptable defense and knew how to push the ball up the floor. He had to learn once he got here that all the Celtics want him to do is lead the team in assists, and that if he does his job, he will get no more than his fair share.

"The Celtics' offensive style of play is a lot different than it was at Indiana," said Sichting. "They tried a motion game, similar to what Denver will run. They didn't use much set offense. If a guy was hot, sometimes he would get the ball, sometimes he wouldn't. We only ran plays for certain guys.

"Here, my individual game is the same. But you come down and look for matchups more. That's the way the game should be played. It's easy to play with these guys. They're so good and teams have to constantly be aware of where Kevin (McHale) and Larry or Robert (Parish) are on the floor. That's how I get a lot of open shots."

Intelligence is a key for a player of his size and skills, said Sichting.

"I rely on my experience and court savvy. As long as you have the fundamentals down, you can play at a level higher than people expect. If you're solid in your shooting and your ball-handling, and you don't make mistakes, you'll be OK," Sichting said.

"When I came here, I was billed as a great outside shooter. I know a lot of people really expected a lot. But I'm more a shooter than a scorer, and there's a difference between the two. Sam Vincent can score a lot and in different ways because he is a little quicker and better going to the basket than I am. But the club did need some help as far as outside shooting, and I definitely can do that."

Jones calls the injury to Ainge a blessing in diguise. "Jerry has had a chance to get some minutes and to get comfortable with the starters. He's looking a lot better."

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