BOSTON (AP) – Danny Ainge leaned back in a court-side seat, surveyed the Boston Celtics bench and ran through the roster in his mind.

“I think we have seven or eight, maybe 10 players on our roster that could have been members of our 1986 team,” he said last week at the Celtics exhibition finale. “They just don’t have McHale and Bird.”

The defending Atlantic Division champions open the season against the New York Knicks tonight, and not since the NBA’s most decorated team went after Tim Duncan in the draft lottery have the expectations been so low.

That’s mostly because the Celtics are one of the youngest teams in the league, including 10 players with two or fewer years of experience. But the other reason is the lack of a star – Larry Bird or Kevin McHale would be nice – that would give the team a chance at banner No. 17.

“I think I know what it takes to win a championship, and I don’t think we’re there yet,” Ainge said while sitting in the press row seat assigned to The Associated Press. “I think that’s a long shot. But I don’t think this team has had a chance for a championship since 1987.”

The blunt comments from the Celtics’ basketball boss fall short of the assessment of then-owner Paul Gaston, who said on the eve of the season a decade ago, “I think we know our team stinks.” But Ainge said it’s important to be realistic.

“I don’t want to put unfair expectations on our team,” he said. “We have goals: to win our division. I think a lot of fans understand where you are and what you want to do. We’re just not there yet. We want to be.”

The Celtics went 45-37 last season to win the most tightly contested – and most mediocre – division in the NBA. They were eliminated in the first round by the Indiana Pacers.

More troubling than the early departure was the performance of Paul Pierce, whose mood soured after a series of clashes with new coach Doc Rivers. In the playoffs, Pierce was ejected from Game 6 and responded to a hard foul in Game 7 by wearing a bizarre, bandage-type splint on his head that would definitely not fit the league’s new dress code.

Pierce then spent all summer hearing trade rumors as the Celtics reportedly shopped him around. But the three-time All-Star is back; with Antoine Walker and Gary Payton gone, Pierce is senior member of the team and the only one who already has the star power the club can build around.

“We’ve been rebuilding every year,” Pierce said with a chuckle. “But somehow, some way, we’ve been in the playoffs every year. I think we have great potential on this team. I think we can be a playoff team.”

Ainge said Pierce appears to have a better outlook this season. And, if the Celtics are going to accomplish even a modest goal like making the playoffs, they’ll need him to be a steadying presence for the young players.

“It’s a role I’m enjoying so far,” Pierce said. “I’m just here to lend my expertise and show what it’s going to take to be a team. Losing teams carry themselves a certain way, and winning teams carry themselves a different way.

“I’m just going to show what I’ve learned from being on a winning team.”

Ainge said he has seen improvement in Pierce’s attitude.

“I think Paul’s mind is in a very good place,” Ainge said. “I hope it wasn’t in a good place at the end of last season. I think all of our minds weren’t in a good place. It was an ugly end to the season.”

Rivers is optimistic – but, when pressed, equally realistic – about this year.

“I like our chances,” he said after wrapping up the preseason.

For what?

“I’ll let you know.”

AP-ES-10-28-05 1315EDT

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