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Danny Ainge in position to improve Celtics for playoff run

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“We’ve seen some amazing upside and potential for this team this year,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “It’s fun.”Mary Schwalm

The Celtics are 33 games into what could be a return to prominence, and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has had plenty of time to assess the roster and its potential.

Ainge is brimming with optimism as midseason approaches, yet he understands seven weeks remain to make a trade that perhaps could catapult the Celtics into the first tier of the Eastern Conference. His ears are open, but nothing is imminent.

"We put ourselves in a position where we're still in it and we're still fighting for our lives," Ainge said. "I've enjoyed watching our team play. With the exception of a few games, it's impossible to go through an 82-game schedule without some stinkers. I like the energy the guys bring. I'm excited about these guys the second half of the year."


The Celtics are heavy in big men, with Amir Johnson, David Lee, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Tyler Zeller all fighting for minutes and dealing with bouts of inconsistency. With the Celtics having extra big men as well as a plethora of future draft picks, Ainge has ample assets to dangle for the right piece.

"I think everyone is feeling things out," he said. "There is some conversation going on out there and it's hard to know what ultimately will happen."

Isaiah Thomas has flourished as a starter — averaging 20.7 points and 6.9 assists with an offensive rating of 113 — as the Celtics are off to their best start in Brad Stevens's tenure as coach. Ainge acquired Thomas last February to jump-start the offense, and the Celtics entered Saturday 38-25 since the trade.

"I love Isaiah as a player, starter or bench player," Ainge said. "He's been a terrific player. I think he's having a fantastic year. I think Avery Bradley is having a fantastic year. I think Jae Crowder is having a fantastic year for us.


"Any one of those guys, whether they're starters or bench, doesn't change how much I love them. I think starting is overrated. Ultimately you have to maximize your roster and other pieces and play a 48-minute game and best utilize those minutes."

The Eastern Conference appears vulnerable, as entering Saturday five games separated the first and 10th seeds. Perhaps with another roster move, the Celtics could advance deep into the playoffs.

"We've got some great wins, some great games, we've seen some amazing upside and potential for this team this year," said Ainge. "It's fun.

"It's the same thing we say most years with our young guys: consistency. I thought [Sullinger] got off to an amazing start. He's slowed down the last six or seven games, but I think he'll get it back.

"He's got some soreness and some nagging injuries but I think our team had good depth and good upside. It's fun. I've really enjoyed being around this team."

When asked if the Celtics needed additions, Ainge said, "I think that it's a challenge. This team is in some ways a real challenge to coach. For some guys, it's a challenge in that we have a lot of depth. That's good and bad in some ways. We've been fortunate that we haven't had a lot of injuries, but do we need change? No. Can we get better? Sure.

"I guess that's why I answer phone calls. But there's not anything that I feel like I have to do."


With the Celtics owning potentially four first-round picks in this year's draft, Ainge has a lot of resources to move for a difference-maker.

"We have certain value on everything, on our players, on our draft picks, cap space," Ainge said. "We value everything to a certain point. There's certain things you won't do unless you get the right assets in return."

Bulls struggling under Hoiberg

Fred Hoiberg is in his first season as coach of the Bulls.J Pat Carter

Pau Gasol had never played in the Eastern Conference before signing with the Bulls last season. That season was a renaissance for Gasol, who averaged 18.5 points and a career-best 11.8 rebounds in reaching his fifth All-Star Game.

Year 2 in Chicago has been one of transition for the organization. Laidback Fred Hoiberg has taken over as coach for grinder Tom Thibodeau, and the Bulls, expected to challenge the Cavaliers in the East, are 19-12 despite a home-heavy schedule.

The adjustment to Hoiberg is ongoing, with swingman Jimmy Butler calling out his coach over his lenient style. The Bulls have the talent to reach the NBA Finals, if they are healthy.

"It's been a change of philosophy, of dynamics, a new coaching staff that just got put there, so there's a process of adjustment," Gasol said. "That takes a little bit of time, but I still think we're in that process. You've got to understand where you're at and try to do your best and do your part."

Thibodeau was a demanding coach and his style grated on the players. There were certain Bulls who wanted him gone. Partially because of the success of the Celtics' Brad Stevens, Hoiberg, coaching at Iowa State, became a hot candidate.


The Bulls brought him in because of his inventive mind, yet it seems they are pretty much the same team they were under Thibodeau.

"We didn't know exactly what to expect coming in and we had to figure it out, as we found out," Gasol said. "What's asked of you, what kind of role you're going to have, how much you're going to play. The coach is working hard to try to put us in the best position to succeed, get the best out of each player."

Gasol has a player option for next season that he is expected to decline. Thus, he would be a free agent this summer at age 36 in a market that will be active because of the increased salary cap. He has proven he can still play at an All-Star level, so there will be interest.

"I got my national team commitment, so that keeps me on top of my game, and I prepare really hard to play the European Championships," said Gasol, a native of Spain. "I worked really hard, played really well, played one of the best summers of my entire life, career, and that felt great. That kind of gives me a lot of confidence, rhythm. My game doesn't drop at all."

After seeing close friend and former teammate Kobe Bryant decide to retire when his body began to break down, Gasol reflected on one of the game's greats.


"Kobe has been going hard for 20 years," Gasol said. "There's not many players in the history of this league that are able to play 20 seasons. He's been able to do it. That's remarkable in itself, but at the same time Father Time is Father Time and we all will suffer at one time or another. It comes for all of us.

"I think Kobe has had a fantastic, incredible career. He's a living legend, an icon for a lot of kids. All you can do is applaud him and be happy for him.

"It was very hard for me. I enjoyed playing with Kobe. We had incredible seasons together and for me to make that decision [to leave the Lakers], the franchise, a team, the city, the fans mean a lot to me. Kobe, obviously, means a lot to me as well."

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Playoff losses fueled Bryant

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers defeated the Celtics, 112-104, on Wednesday.Winslow Townson

Last week, upon the occasion of his final game in Boston, Kobe Bryant reflected on his battles with the Celtics and what the rivalry meant to his career. Bryant helped resurrect the rivalry, which was reignited with the 2008 NBA Finals, and then again in 2010, when Bryant's Lakers beat the Celtics in an epic seven-game series.

The Celtics led, three games to two, in 2010 with the final two games at Staples Center. The Lakers beat a rather uninterested Celtics team, 89-67, in Game 6. Then the Celtics controlled most of Game 7, leading, 57-53, after three quarters.

But Bryant sparked a fourth-quarter rally despite missing 18 of 24 shots overall. The Lakers went to the free throw line 21 times in that final quarter, Bryant attempted nine, and Los Angeles prevailed, 83-79.

"Being in a timeout going into the fourth quarter with the guys and just huddling together and saying, 'I have no idea how we are going to figure this thing out, but we are going to figure this thing out,' " Bryant said. "That's my recollection. We just buckled down, we trusted each other, and went out and grinded it out."

Bryant recalled a moment earlier in the series, after the Game 5 loss at TD Garden.

"The most beautiful memory I have took place in this locker room back here," he said. "When we went down, 3-2, and we came in this locker room and we sat there and we were all just kind of like, 'What is happening? This can't be happening again.'

"I found the humor in it and I started laughing. The guys were looking at me like, 'What is wrong? We are one game from losing,' and I just said, 'Guys, listen, they kicked our butt, that's pretty funny, and secondly, if we started the season and they told us that all we had to do was go home and win two games to be NBA champions, would you take that deal?' ''

Bryant was an interested observer when the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007. The Lakers were coming off a 42-40 season and had lost to the Suns in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

"I was excited, but not really," Bryant said of the Celtics' acquisitions. "Their roster was a mixture of young players, veteran players, nasty, tough players.

"At the same time, I was extremely excited because I might have an opportunity to live out this childhood dream of the Lakers and the Celtics. Then when you are in that situation, especially in 2010, it's like I don't want to be the player years from now where the Lakers lost twice against the Celtics; I don't want to be that guy.

"There was a lot of pressure to not let that happen."

Bryant pointed to the loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals as a benchmark of his career, the wake-up call he needed to be less of a ball-dominant player, and also that the Lakers needed more help to emerge as champions.

"The loss led to the win [in 2010]," Bryant said. "I say that in the most beautiful way possible. I don't remember the loss as like a painful experience, I remember it as a beautiful moment because it helped me find the best version of myself and my teammates.

"I always remember the beauty of it; at the time, not so much."

There was a time when the Lakers weren't so dominant. The Spurs dismissed them in the second round on their way to the 1999 title, and the Lakers had to do something different to emerge as true contenders.

"I remember having to make a decision because the Spurs were such a fundamentally sound team and we had a reputation of being more flash than substance," Bryant said. "I had to look at the Spurs and understand why they were so efficient, why they played winning basketball, and then I had to step back and look at my game and figure out how to edit my game so I'd simplify it.

"I felt like at the time I could do so much that I was doing too much, particularly handling the ball. I made a conscious decision to not work on my handle at all and try to dumb down my game to be more efficient so I don't dribble as much and learn to become more efficient and play winning basketball. I think the Spurs sweeping us was a big turning point for me."

Sixers pull the switch

The surprising aspect of the 76ers adding point guard Ish Smith was the release of former first-round pick Tony Wroten. Wroten had played in eight games since returning from a torn ACL in his right knee and had averaged 8.4 points and 2.5 assists on 33.8 percent shooting. Wroten is more of a combo guard, but the 76ers wanted him to play point. It was not an effective transition and they opted for the improving Smith, who was nudged out of playing time in New Orleans. Wroten could be an intriguing player to bring in on a 10-day contract, but he has some question marks. The 76ers apparently weren't pleased when he spent the entire summer in his native Seattle instead of Philadelphia during injury rehabilitation. Wroten will need to prove he can be a more efficient scorer and also play defense. He left the University of Washington after his freshman season and was drafted 25th overall by Memphis in 2012 before being traded to Philadelphia for just a second-round pick.


Jan. 5 is the first day teams can sign players to 10-day contracts, and some intriguing players are flourishing in the NBADL, such as former Duke standout Elliot Williams, ex-Spur Jeff Ayres, and former University of Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick . . . Another player who could become available is Metta World Peace, who played in just 17 of the Lakers' first 33 games and has not played since Dec. 7. World Peace signed a veteran minimum contract and perhaps could help a contender with his defense. The Lakers decided to release improving prospect Jabari Brown in favor of adding World Peace. Brown then signed a contract to play in China . . . The chaos in Phoenix cost former Celtics assistant coach Mike Longabardi his job, along with ex-Celtic Jerry Sichting, another assistant. Ownership spared coach Jeff Hornacek, but look out for former WNBA coach and Suns assistant Corey Gaines, who led the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship. Gaines and former NBA point guard Earl Watson are now Hornacek's top assistants.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.