BOSTON - For Brian Shaw, these were the true sights and sounds of Boston.

Celtics flags everywhere. Fans shouting at the Lakers' bus, most of them decked out in green. Even the driver taking the team to the arena was wearing a Celtics hat.

That was missing in recent years, and so were wins on the basketball court. But with the Celtics back in the NBA finals, the city has regained a part of its identity.

Beantown has gone green again.

"I'm sure that everybody feels like the team is back where it belongs and things are the way that they are supposed to be," Shaw said.

Shaw began his career with the Celtics, ended it with the Lakers, and is now an assistant on Phil Jackson's staff. Los Angeles was trying to even the series last night in Game 2 before if shifted to the West Coast.

Shaw was drafted in 1988, the year after the Celtics lost to the Lakers in their last finals appearance. He was traded to Miami in 1992, and later realized that some of the fans had left town, too.

"I know that there were games we played here in recent years that wasn't sold out, which was different," Shaw said. "The years that I was here it was always sold out.

"I know a couple of years ago the fans here were chanting 'MVP!' when Kobe put on a show here, that would have never ever happened before. So I think that the culture kind of changed. I'm sure that it's coming back now to the way it was."

Long before the Red Sox and Patriots became the dominant teams in their sports, it was up to the Celtics to bring titles home to Boston. They often delivered, winning 16 of them, tops in the NBA.

But the last came back in 1986, and in recent years the Celtics were even mocked, when they weren't being ignored. Once the best in the NBA, they had to settle for being third best in their own city.

"I know it's been a struggle for the Celts, since the '90s, getting fans interested, especially competing against the Red Sox and Patriots. They're kind of one and two I guess in Boston, so the Celts had to kind of compete with that. Now they're back up there," said Peter Colton, owner and manager of The Four's, a sports bar across the street from the TD Banknorth Garden where patrons can look at pictures of Larry Bird while eating a sandwich named for him.

Bird retired after the 1992 season, and the Celtics didn't win another playoff series until 10 years later. They missed the postseason the last 2 years and became a laughingstock last season, when they won 24 games and sometimes seemed more interested in losing for a better shot at landing the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"I guess the low point was a year ago when they lost 18 straight or something like that," Celtics Hall of Famer John Havlicek said. "But you know there are cyclical things in sports and they reached rock bottom. Now they're riding the wave of that championship feeling. So I think you have to go through the good and the bad, and fortunately right now they're fighting for a championship."

That hardly seemed possible last spring, when the Celtics celebrated the 50th anniversary of their first championship. Things were so bad that Boston's first attempt to trade for Kevin Garnett collapsed because the All-Star didn't think he had a chance to win there.

Garnett changed his mind after the Celtics acquired Ray Allen, and decided to come to Boston. The fans followed, as every home game was sold out after the team had averaged 16,900 fans at its 18,624-seat arena last season. *