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With new Big Three, Ainge is riding high

On the NBA • Dealing for Allen, Garnett reversed Boston GM's fortunes
by: ELSA, Bringing in (from left) Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to play with Paul Pierce had the Boston Celtics atop the NBA with a 30-5 record entering Monday’s game.

Imagine how life has changed for Danny Ainge over the span of seven months. Boston ended last season 24-58 - the second-worst record in the NBA and the third losing season in Ainge's four-year reign as general manager.

The Celtics were but an afterthought on the Boston sports menu, and plenty of loyalists were clamoring for a change of leadership in the city's fabled pro basketball franchise.

Then, in little more than a month of an unforgettable New England summer, Ainge pulled off trades to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

Presto! As the Celtics prepare to play host to the Trail Blazers on Wednesday at TD Banknorth Garden, they own the NBA's best record and have regained the affection of one of the nation's most sports-crazy communities.

'That's been really exciting,' says Ainge, the Eugene native who spent two seasons as a guard with the Blazers. 'They mention us and follow us to the level they talk about the Red Sox and Patriots. That's a huge change. We were nonexistent the last few years.'

Suddenly, Ainge is the leading candidate for NBA executive of the year, the genius who put together the deals that make Boston the team to beat for the 2008 league championship.

Another losing campaign could have cost Ainge his job, but he doesn't look at it like that.

'I will never feel that kind of pressure,' says Ainge, 46, whose contract with Boston runs through 2010. 'I guess I'm fortunate to be that way. I'm not driven or motivated by those types of things. I have a comfortable life outside of basketball.

'My pressure comes from within: I want to win myself. So it was an internal pressure. Obviously, I'm working for people who have a lot of faith in me and gave me an opportunity. But I never felt like my job was on the line or got that impression from the owners.'

Ainge says he felt a responsibility to get coach Doc Rivers some help and to do something for - or with - All-Star forward Paul Pierce, who had spent all nine of his seasons in Boston.

The Celtics had come close to trading Pierce only once - in 2005, when they nearly swung a deal with Portland that would have included the No. 3 draft pick (Ainge would have used it to take Chris Paul). This time, it came down to a decision about either getting Pierce veteran help or rebuilding around 23-year-old center Al Jefferson.

'I preferred to stay with Paul all along,' Ainge says.

On draft day, Boston sent Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and the rights to Jeff Green to Seattle for Allen and the rights to Glen Davis. Little more than a month later, the Celtics landed the whopper, Garnett, in exchange for Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and two future first-round picks.

Normally, a team with major new parts needs some time to transition into a cohesive unit. The Celtics started out winning, and they haven't stopped, running up a remarkable 30-5 record going into Monday's home date with Washington.

'I don't think anyone could have projected this kind of start,' Ainge says. 'I never have expectations for wins and losses, but I expected us to be good. I knew the three guys could play together. That was never an issue for me. The biggest question was how long it would take for the other players to take their roles, and how that all was going to fit.'

No problems there. Young center Kendrick Perkins and point guard Rajon Rondo - the other starters - have meshed smoothly with the Big Three, and key reserves James Posey, Eddie House, Tony Allen and Davis have produced.

Much has been made of Minnesota GM Kevin McHale - a close friend of Ainge, a stalwart on three Boston championship teams and a Hall-of-Famer - airmailing his old pal and team a title by sending along Garnett.

'There's been a lot of discussion about that,' Ainge says. 'All I can say is this: It was hard for us to trade Al Jefferson, who is a very good player and a great human being. There's nothing not to like about Al. But we felt he may be a couple of years away, Paul was ready to win, and we needed to do something. We needed to either put players around Al or around Paul.

'I don't know what other offers Kevin had (for Garnett). But I think Kevin would be reluctant to trade his franchise player to his old team, or to his friend, unless Al was the best player he was being offered. Kevin did what was best for his franchise. That was the best deal he felt like he could get.'

Ainge has been buoyed by the way Garnett, Allen and Pierce have jelled in such short time.

'They're all shooting a significant number of fewer shots than they have in the past,' Ainge says. 'In a sense, they're deferring to each other, but more than anything, it's an attitude, a professionalism, an enthusiasm they bring. They get along, they value having each other as teammates. It's been great to watch.'

Don't ask Ainge about the Celtics as NBA championship favorites.

'I don't even talk about that,' he says. 'It's too soon. We have high goals and expectations. We're one of about 12 teams looking to win. We know we're not better than anybody else. We have the best record right now, but we have to get a lot better. That's a conversation we can have when the playoffs come around.'

And yes, among those dozen teams Ainge considers to have a shot at the title are the Blazers.

'I've seen them a lot on TV this season,' he says. 'They're really fun to watch. They have great chemistry and young talent, an excellent amount of depth, and Brandon Roy is beyond his years and experience. It'll be fun to see how they mature as the season goes on.'

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