October 21, 1997
Half the Celtics' exhibition season is complete. The second half starts tonight in Orlando, Fla., the first of four games in five days. By Sunday, Rick Pitino may still have as many wins as Dave Wannstedt.
That is not the plan or design, but it may well be the outcome. Starting tonight against the Magic, however, Pitino will try to get a rotation down as he continues to implement a system that so far has been about as successful as the Edsel.
Tonight, Pitino's dream backcourt - Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups - will start. They may remain there for a while, although Pitino said yesterday after a practice at Brandeis that he wasn't sure.
"I want them to get as much experience as possible," he said, "but whether I do that against Michael Jordan or Penny Hardaway, I don't know."
The first two games of the season are against the Bulls and the Magic.
The front three of Chris Mills, Antoine Walker, and Travis Knight is intact and likely to remain so for some time. Pitino again lavished praise on Knight, who he said is the team's second-best defender while adding, "He's going to be a great, great basketball player."
Beyond that, it's up for grabs. We know one thing: The player who was the sixth man Saturday in Green Bay won't be the sixth man tonight. Pitino cut Lorenzo Coleman yesterday.
So what you see if you watch tonight is what you likely are going to see when the ball goes up for good on Halloween. So far, what you've seen is enough to make you consider dressing as a Celtic for Halloween.
After tonight's game, the Celtics host the Knicks tomorrow night, the Bucks Friday, and then travel to Philadelphia to meet the Sixers Saturday.
"The next four games, I'm going to try and get my substitution patterns down," Pitino said. "We're going to try and win it tonight although it wouldn't surprise me if we didn't."
Based on the first four games, it would be a stunner. The Pitino Celtics still are in the adaptation phase, trying to absorb what for most of them is an entirely new way to play basketball. Dana Barros said yesterday he has never played this way. Chris Mills said his old team, the Cavaliers, worked almost exclusively in halfcourt sets, rarely trapping or pressing, which are Pitino staples.
Pitino knew there'd be ugly games and he said yesterday there will continue to be ugly games. Maybe by December, he suggested, the guys will get it. But what if they don't? What if this team and his system simply don't fit?
That would be a first, the coach said, and thus he couldn't contemplate what might happen.
"It's not reality," Pitino said. "This system has worked everywhere I've gone."
The Celtics appeared to be making incremental progress after three games and then backtracked big-time against the Bucks. Milwaukee shot 61 percent and scored 118 points. Those are numbers worthy of last year's shipwreck.
"Unfortunately, I've been through this before, so I know what's going to happen," he said. "I know when it will happen. I wish I didn't, but I do. It takes time to build mental toughness."
The danger, of course, is that the Celtics become an utter irrelevancy this season by the time the players do get it. (Their first six games are all potential L's.) Pitino's first-year Knicks won 38 games, but sneaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season. He has said repeatedly that this team isn't as talented as that Knicks team. He'd like to start to see some kind of upgrade soon and tonight would be as good a time as any.
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