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No. 5 BOSTON CELTICS
Jackie MacMullan
November 10, 1997
Chauncey Billups gasped for air. A rookie point guard who has a tattoo on his left arm that reads KING OF THE HILL Billups was trying to scale the mountain of conditioning demanded by Rick Pitino. The climb was killing Billups—and this was only in the preseason. "I thought I was in great shape," Billups said, "but now I realize I have no idea what that means in this system."
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November 10, 1997

No. 5 Boston Celtics

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BY THE NUMBERS

1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS
Record: 15-67 (seventh in Atlantic)

SEASON AVERAGES

Points per game (rank)

FG pct. (rank)

Rebounds per game (rank)

Turnovers per game (rank)

Celtics

100.6 (5)

.440 (22)

40.0 (21)

16.4 (22)

Opponents

107.9 (29)

.503 (29)

44.3 (28)

17.6 (2)

Chauncey Billups gasped for air. A rookie point guard who has a tattoo on his left arm that reads KING OF THE HILL Billups was trying to scale the mountain of conditioning demanded by Rick Pitino. The climb was killing Billups—and this was only in the preseason. "I thought I was in great shape," Billups said, "but now I realize I have no idea what that means in this system."

The system Pitino will implement in his first year at the Celtics' helm will be familiar to Knicks fans from 1987 to '89: a blend of pressing, trapping and three-point shooting that requires players to be in superb shape and to have infinite patience. Pitino used this approach to coax 52 wins out of New York in 1988-89, but there was one major difference between that team and his new one: Pitino in New York had future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing in the pivot.

His center in Boston will be Travis Knight, a frisky second-year pro who was lured away from the Lakers with a seven-year, $22 million contract. Pitino points to Knight's successful rookie campaign with the Lakers as evidence that Knight has the tools to thrive in a transition game. But in L.A., Knight played in short spurts or, when he was at his best, alongside Shaquille O'Neal. In Boston he'll often be shoulder-to-shoulder with workmanlike big bodies Andrew DeClercq, Walter McCarty and Roy Rogers. This trio will provide Pitino with another commodity he values: an abundance of fouls.

To rely on the unpolished Knight to score consistently from the post would be pure folly. With Dino Radja hitting the road for Europe after the Celtics bought out his contract, the closest they can come to a bona fide inside threat is 30-year-old Pervis Ellison, whose chronically sore knees have earned him the nickname Out of Service Pervis. Still, Pitino regards him as the key to his young team's success. "Pervis has big-time ability," Pitino says. "His defensive capabilities could shape our entire team, if he's ready and willing to play. Time will tell if Pervis is up to the challenge."

The same holds true of Billups, the third pick in the draft after his sophomore year at Colorado, who faces a multitude of demands in his role as Pitino's quarterback. He must, for starters, push the ball up the floor hard. He must prove he can hit the NBA three-pointer, as well as break down defenses off the dribble. He must apply pressure in the trap. Oh, and by the way, he must also find the open man in transition and he must provide stability at a position he will probably be sharing with Dana Barros.

"I know there's a lot of pressure on me to perform, but I'm not going to run away from that," says the 6'3", 21-year-old Billups. "Point guards represent some of the premier players in the NBA right now, and I want to be one of them."

Pitino will probably limit Billups's offensive duties early in the season and rely more on forward Antoine Walker. Rookie guard Ron Mercer is the third of Pitino's former players at Kentucky in the starting lineup, along with Walker and McCarty. Veteran guard Dee Brown will be counted on almost as heavily for his contributions in the locker room as for his three-point shooting.

Although Pitino told Billups before the draft that he fully expected to take the Celtics to the playoffs this season, he tempered that when his team continued to stumble along in exhibition play. Another sign of his dropping expectations came on Oct. 22, when Boston traded swingman Chris Mills to the Knicks for point guard Scott Brooks (since waived) and forwards Dontae' Jones, rookie John Thomas and McCarty. Only eight weeks earlier the Celtics had signed Mills to a seven-year, $33.6 million deal. The swap was indicative of Mills's struggles with Pitino's system and a desire to clear salary-cap room for further rebuilding at the FleetCenter.

Boston will struggle mightily in the early months of the season but may well reap some of the rewards of Pitino's frenzied style in January and February, when other clubs become fatigued. The playoffs? That's a dream for another season, when Billups is a year older, a year wiser and a little closer to understanding what a long climb it is to the top of the NBA.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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