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Bob Ryan

NBA stiffing fans with stars’ absence

There were seven All-Star-level NBA players on the Celtics and Heat in the building atop North Station last night, not counting Juwan Howard, whose expiration date has passed. Guess how many of them actually suited up for the game? One.

No Kevin Garnett. No Rajon Rondo. No Ray Allen. No LeBron James. No Dwyane Wade. No Chris Bosh. Nope, none of the above, all of whom are injured to some degree.

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In this league of stars, the only marquee player available for your perusal on this third-from-last night of this unusual season was Paul Pierce, who is a long way from 100 percent healthy himself.

If perhaps you had bought a ticket or four in the hopes of taking yourself and the rest of the family to see some Fantastic NBA action? Too bad. Caveat emptor. As long as the proper team name is on the front of the jersey, you’re supposed to take it and like it, the idea being that an NBA player is an NBA player.

I didn’t hear anyone in power apologize, but I did hear some pretty good rationalizations.

“In no form or fashion are we not treating this game with absolute professionalism,’’ insisted Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We are getting up for this game no matter who are playing. We’re competing to win.’’

Understand that the players in question are all injured. But were this a playoff situation, most of them would have been playing, the most likely exception being Wade, who dislocated a finger in a recent game. The rest of them would have been out there giving whatever they had to give, however subpar physically they might have been.

But all over the league, players are being held out of games when they could play as coaches are choosing to risk losing battles in order to win the upcoming war. It started April 9 when San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, enmeshed in a brutal stretch of the schedule, kept All-Stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili home from a trip to Utah. The Spurs lost and Pop didn’t care, either about the loss or the fans who had paid to see those three play. He was simply keeping his eye on the prize.

Doc Rivers did it last Saturday. In a maneuver planned well in advance, he did not play Pierce, Garnett, or Rondo (Allen was not capable of playing) in a loss to Atlanta, the team his team is in supposed competition with for home-court advantage in the series that will start this weekend. He has said time and again that health matters far more to him in the playoffs than the home court.

Remember what’s at stake here.

“The job going into the season is to win playoff games,’’ said Celtics president Danny Ainge. “That’s our objective.”

Neither the players nor the coaches are villains. The villains are the negotiators on both side of the infamous season-delaying labor/management brouhaha who fiddled and diddled all summer and fall, failing to produce a new CBA until December. The result was a compressed 66-game schedule that has turned out to be a nightmare of epic proportions.

It’s not a schedule. It’s a battle of attrition, nothing more, nothing less.

“The schedule has proven to be far more physically demanding than we knew,’’ said Ainge. “It’s been hard on everybody, not just players, but coaches, trainers, strength coaches, everybody.’’

But Ainge disputes the notion that the goings-on at the end of this season are that much different from any other year.

“OK, there’s more of it,’’ he said. “But you would still see things like this at the end of a season. Guys have bumps and bruises.

“Teams always have the right to do that. I don’t think it’s unprecedented. Pop has been doing that for the last few years. He’s always looked at it that way. And some guys have started people and sat them down after five minutes.’’

Ainge claimed that he and Rivers have had should-he-or-shouldn’t-he discussions regarding key players at the end of every season.

Granted, not all of the injuries keeping star players out of the lineup all over the league are schedule-related. But can anyone doubt that the compressed schedule - the three games in three nights, four in five, 11 in 15, whatever - are contributing factors to injury? I think we all know the answer to that one.

In the minds of coaches, losing players to injury is not the only negative effect of the killer schedule. There is nothing coaches hate worse than losing practice time, and that’s the norm in 2011-12.

“We’ve had zero practices,’’ said Rivers, “and that has really affected our young players. I’d go so far as to say these guys have been robbed of a year. And the execution is poor all over the league.

“I didn’t anticipate it being as difficult for us because we had those guys back. I thought we’d pick it up pretty easy. But it’s been very difficult.’’

All of this is inside basketball talk. Fans seldom grasp the significance of practice, anyway. All they care about is what is supposed to be a finished product on game night, and said product begins with the marquee players.

Media and ownership might find games featuring auxiliary players intriguing, and coaches talk up the idea of seeing those people in real game situations, but all a fan knows is that a Celtics-Heat game on April 24 that does not include Messrs. Garnett, Rondo, Allen, James, Wade, and Bosh might as well be played in some high school gym in Chicopee or Ocala. For free.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, there were no people from the Celtics organization handing out 10-dollar bills to fans upon exiting as a sign of good faith. But I might have simply missed it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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