Big Al Hitting the Wall

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January 2, 2005

WALTHAM - Shifting his weight from right to left and glancing repeatedly at his cellphone, Al Jefferson looked a bit distracted around 3 p.m. yesterday. That was understandable. The Celtics' rookie big man had to rush home and pack before catching the team charter to Detroit in an hour.

Coach Doc Rivers reported that Jefferson was clearly hitting a mental, if not physical, wall during practice, missing defensive assignments and losing focus. Jefferson did not dispute that, 29 contests into his NBA career, the pro game has become a grind on and off the court. It has become tougher for Jefferson, who turns 20 Wednesday, to sustain his focus.

   "There's a lot of stuff you've just got to know," said Jefferson, who is also recovering slowly from a cold. "You've got to be on time for everything. Right now, I've got to catch a plane. I haven't even packed. On the court, you've got to know every little thing. If you mess up, the whole thing messes up. You've got to use your mind and be mentally tough.

"I'm just now getting over a bad, bad cold. I don't want to be the type that runs to Doc and says, 'Look, I'm sick.' I'm trying to play through. Right now, he probably doesn't know I've been sick. I just want to come out and play hard. You've got to take care of yourself. My body is like my business. If I don't take care of my body, I don't have any business."

Though Jefferson may be a little under the weather, the Celtics' bench play overall has a healthy outlook. The reserves were big contributors in a 108-103 victory over the Wizards Friday. The bench accounted for 36 points, including 10 by rookie Tony Allen in seven minutes.

When the season started, Rivers did not know exactly what he had with the Celtics. That explains his inconsistent, sometimes indecipherable, substitution patterns, and his decision to start Ricky Davis. But as Boston moves toward the midpoint of the schedule, Rivers has grown more familiar and comfortable with his roster. That explains the Celtics' improving bench play.

"They pretty much know who they are and who's going to be on the floor with them," said Rivers. "This is a whole new group of guys playing with each other, so it takes time for them. It's easy for a group of starters because they're on the floor for 35 minutes. You're asking a group that's on the floor for seven minutes, eight minutes, 10 minutes, then 10 minutes again in the second half, to get continuity. That's not a lot of time to get it. So it's going to take them time, and I think they're going to keep getting better."

Rivers has found productive roles for Jefferson, Allen, Davis, Marcus Banks, and Walter McCarty. With Tom Gugliotta back in the mix and Delonte West looking at another two weeks, minimum, before he returns to practice, there certainly will be more tinkering with the rotation. But the reserves have a better understanding of what Rivers expects from them, and it shows.

"Everybody is going to have up-and-down seasons," said McCarty. "But we're all comfortable with our roles. We know what we're supposed to do in the game, what plays to run, and when we're coming into the game. It's all coming together. We still have a lot of work to do, but there's going to be nights when we're all playing well.

"[Against Washington], we were all playing well. I came in and knocked some shots down. Tony Allen played well. Marcus has really been playing well as far as getting to the rim and getting guys good shots. Occasionally, Al has big nights down in the paint where he's able to put a string of baskets together.

"There's going to be a lot of different nights where different people step up. We've got a bench capable of scoring a lot of points. We bring a lot of energy and fresh legs off the bench."

The bench has a lot of depth, especially considering that Gugliotta, Kendrick Perkins, and soon West will be competing to get back into the rotation. Perkins may catch a break tonight in Detroit with Rivers contemplating some rest for Jefferson.

"Right now, [Jefferson] is missing more and more rotations to the point where we're going to have to make a decision," said Rivers. "Either he learns it or he sits for a while to rejuvenate. The one thing we can't do is give him minutes because that's a terrible message to give to our team. You get minutes when you earn them."

While Jefferson may lose some minutes, the bench has certainly earned an increasing amount of respect in the time it does have.

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