For starters, Danny Ainge, who visits the Salt Palace tonight as the Boston Celtics make their annual visit to Utah, wants to set the record straight and clarify that he did not, as Pat O'Brien suggested last Sunday afternoon on CBS, play "something like 93 holes of golf" the day before the NBA's All-Star long-distance shootout. A golfing marathon that O'Brien suggested accounted for Ainge's dismal performance in the shootout, where he finished next-to-the-last, ahead, only, of the Russian.

"The reason I bombed in that 3-point contest," says Ainge, "is because I can't shoot a set shot. And that's what you have to shoot when you only have 60 seconds. You can't shoot jump shots. There isn't enough time. I practiced the set shots a few times, with Larry (Bird), but I just can't shoot a set shot."I only played 23 holes of golf the day before."

Here it is, the middle of another normal season for Danny Ainge, eight years removed now, it may seem hard to believe, from BYU. Normal for Ainge isn't necessarily normal for everybody else. No one else had to petition a federal court to get into the league in the first place - and get out of professional baseball - and, ever since, few players have had Ainge's knack of always keeping things stirred up and, well, interesting.

Last weekend's 3-point contest and All-Star break actually served as casual relief for Ainge - and his teammates - from their current season-long campaign of trying to keep the Celtics viable and respectable as they strive to function without Larry Bird and, at the same time, turn themselves into the Lean Green Running Machine.

As Ainge explains, the Celtics are in the middle of a transition game. They want to turn themselves into a team that can play on the fly, a team that can counter the Knicks' flying press and the Pistons' flying bodies and the Lakers' flying fastbreak - not to mention the Jazz's.

This is easier said than done, particularly when the main man of the franchise, Bird, is out with an achilles injury.

"It's taking a little time to teach old dogs new tricks," says Ainge. "But it's got to be done. And not just because Larry's out. This was brewing for a while. It was evident last year in the playoffs. The series with New York was tough, then Atlanta took us to seven games, and Detroit, really, just blew us out. We were stagnant. What worked for so long, a lot of one-on-one, wasn't working any more. We weren't running enough, and we didn't have enough depth."

The change to up-tempo is fine with Ainge.

"I die to run. I hate to walk," he says. And seemingly fine with his game. While his minutes are down as the Celtics' starting shooting guard (from 38 last year to 30 this year, as the Celtics are working 12 men into the lineup), his points per game are virtually the same (15.8 to 15.7), and he's hitting his 3-pointers - more exactly, his jump-shot 3-pointers - with nearly the same regularity as a year ago, when he set a new NBA single-season record with 148. And his free throw percentage, close to 90 percent, is in the top 10 in the league.

The change in won-lost record is not fine with Ainge. The Celtics are 23-24 coming into tonight's game, well off their standard pace of the '80s, a decade during which they've won three NBA titles and played for the title five times.

Ainge has two NBA rings, one for each hand, to show for it; and he also has a ring he can wear after participating in last year's All-Star game.

But he has never been the kind to rest on his rings. Certainly no one else has rested on them, either. With Ainge, there has always been another challenge around the corner, and another detractor to take on and convince. With him it's always, "what have you done lately?"

"The hope for the Celtics," he says, "is that the running game will start to jell, and we'll get our confidence back and win some of the close games we've been letting get away from us. Everybody's looking forward to Larry coming back, too. Then it's hard to say just what can happen. It can't get worse.

"I feel like I'm playing well. But I could play better. In the final analysis, it's not a great season, because all I've ever based everything on is wins."