Before Trader Dan, there was Trader Rick

March 4, 1999 
Trade winds beckon defense-minded Celtics

   Rick Pitino did a good thing for his tallest employees yesterday. He gave them the day off. HisCeltics needed to rest after playing five games in seven days. Not only does that mean they are tired, it means they should not be surprised when they see the remaining March schedule: 16 games in the next 29 days - or a game every other night. Ten of those games are on the road.

Maybe Pitino is tired from his coaching and presidential duties, too. But he only has time for those trendy, 15-minute power naps. While the Celtics were sleeping, shopping, catching up on their bills, and playing video games, Pitino and general manager Chris Wallace were at work. 

They have a lot to think about.

The NBA's trading deadline is a week from today at 6 p.m. Pitino already has said he has made inquiries to teams, but he insists he hasn't gone shopping for a power forward or center. He knows that's one thing he has to think about in the next seven days. Does he want to shop for this shortened season, especially with his young team struggling with man-to-man defense? Or does he maintain his position and hope his youthful players grow into fierce defenders?

Pitino became frustrated with his defense after the Celtics gave up 116 points to the Cavaliers Tuesday night. Keep in mind that the Cavs are usually the parched wanderers of the NBA desert, desperately seeking offense. Their starting point guard, Brevin Knight, had a sprained right index finger Tuesday and, if he had played, wouldn't have been able to shoot. "I don't know what we would have done if he had to shoot free throws," Cavs coach Mike Fratello said. "Maybe shoot them lefthanded?"

It never became an issue. The Cavs shot 58 percent, nearly double their field-goal percentage from the previous night, and won by 17 points. Knight didn't play. He used his healthy hand to high-five teammates when they came to the Cavs bench. And Pitino sat on the Celtics bench, seething because his team could not press.

"I think we're very lacking in defensive talent," Pitino said after the loss.

What does he mean by that? Well, he looks at his roster and sees four exceptional or potentially exceptional defenders, all of whom have asterisks next to their names.

- Bruce Bowen is a terrific defender. He knows where he and his teammates should be on the Pitino Press. He rarely gets tired. Twice this season, he has made one of the toughest plays a defender can make: He has disrupted a point guard's dribble and cleanly stolen the ball from him. The asterisk on Bowen is that he doesn't score often and is making less than half of his free throws this season.

- Paul Pierce is a good defender - for a rookie. But he is a rookie. Not only does that mean he has to learn how to avoid illegal defenses, flat feet, handchecks, and picks. It also means he has to learn to keep an edge, which all veterans do. Pitino was asked about Pierce's 0-for-11 shooting night on Tuesday. He halfway joked that if Pierce had worked harder on defense, the "Hoop God would have let good things happen to him" on offense.

But the truth is that the Celtics prefer a hungry Pierce. They want the rookie who responded with a jump-shooting vengeance during practice when someone screamed out the names of players drafted ahead of him. They want the rookie who scowls when he blocks a shot. That's one reason the coaching staff continually puts challenges before Pierce, such as telling him that he graded out dead last during the team's game analysis charts. Pierce said he likes those challenges and that "Coach really knows how to motivate me."

- Popeye Jones is a good defender who knows all the industry secrets of pivot work. Asterisk: Pitino says Jones, coming off knee surgery, probably won't be able to help this season.

- Ron Mercer could grow into a solid defender. The team already knows he can play a controlled offensive game (22 points, 4 assists, 1 turnover Tuesday). Now he has to prove he can control an opposing shooting guard. Asterisk: If the Celtics are going to make a trade and remain a talented team, Mercer would probably have to be a part of the deal.

Last week, Pitino said finding an impact free agent in the summer was his top priority. Maybe he will change that position and pursue a center now. And if not, he still has some interesting things to show the Celtics when they return to practice today. They fouled the Cavaliers 40 times, a sign of either poor conditioning or poor positioning. They also missed six free throws against the Nets and lost by 2 points.

After tomorrow's game against the Nuggets at the FleetCenter, the Celtics have five consecutive road games. You will know a lot more about the team when it returns to the FleetCenter on St. Patrick's Day. You will know whether the Celtics improved their defense and foul shooting. And since they will be on the road when the trading deadline strikes, you will know if there will be a new Celtic returning home with them.

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