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Opening Night 2005

I've said enough leading up to the current season that you don't need me to write a traditional preview column to get what I think. So I thought I'd roll the dice and take a stab at NEXT year. Please take with a huge grain of salt.

The Celtics are looking to build upon the momentum created by last summer's playoff performance where they pushed the Indiana Pacers to seven games before being eliminated in a hard fought second round match up.

One of the highest offseason priorities was to retain Gary Payton as a free agent. Gary signed a two-year deal at the mid level exception. His play last year was sometimes brilliant, but too often slowed by injury. The Celtics are hoping to squeeze some more years out of his aging legs and are thrilled with his mentoring of point guard of the future Delonte West.

Also returning is Shareef Abdur-Rahim who signed an extension after being acquired in a complex 3-team trade involving Ricky Davis, Marcus Banks, and Yogi Stewart. Rahim was sought in large part due to the freakish accident involving Raef Lafrentz and Tom Gugliotta. The pair got tangled up under the basket going for a rebound and simultaneously blew out left knees. Green rookie Al Jefferson produced glimpses of future promise but was not consistent enough to earn a regular starting job. Jefferson did endear himself to the coaching staff, however, by following Kendrick Perkins's example and adding 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason.

Of course Paul Pierce returns after Payton helped him to the best shooting percentage season of his career. And speaking of field goal percentage, Mark Blount looks to build on another unspectacular but solid year grabbing rebounds and converting cleanup layups and dunks. Kendrick Perkins hopes to continue his development but has struggled at times with his offensive game. Coaches have been working with him to develop a go-to jump hook to take advantage of his long arms.

While he shies away from too much attention, last year's unequivocal breakout performer was Jiri Welsch. His strong play from the swing position and versatility backing up the point guard position make him one of the most valued glue-guys in the league. Unlike last year, Jiri has a firm position in the starting lineup with talented but unpredictable Tony Allen backing him up. Rounding out the 10 man rotation is long-time vet Walter McCarty, who saw his playing time fall steadily last year but can still be counted on to provide minutes wherever he is needed in the lineup.

Doc Rivers is stressing defense this year, as many teams were able to get the Celtics into a shootout. It took a little while for the C's players to adapt to the free-flowing motion-type offense, especially when Raef and Googs went down, forcing young pivot players into the high post passing slot. However, things picked up as player became comfortable moving without the ball and finding teammates for open looks. Now the goal is to continue that momentum while increasing defensive rebounds that lead to more fast break opportunities. Doc will rely heavily on his young bench to keep the pace up and keep the pressure on opposing defenses.

The Celtics are in the thick of the competition between the powerhouses of the East this year as the NBA saw a tremendous shift in the balance of power. The West remains deeper, with more teams vying for the 8 playoff spots, but the top of the East looks to be as dominant as the old Western clashes. How they fair amongst those teams will determine if this team can take the next step into contending for the title, or more roster shuffling by Danny Ainge.