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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Fire is back on hardwood

Days, weeks, months, and years went by, and the Boston Celtics became irrelevant. Nobody talked about the local basketball team around the water cooler. Nobody called sports radio to offer an opinion. The once-proud team was at the bottom of the sports page and the nightly newscast. You couldn't give tickets away.

And now we have the Great Celtic Revival. Curt Schilling is wearing Paul Pierce's jersey in Fort Myers. Bill Belichick is cribbing from Doc Rivers's playbook. Emulating Danny Ainge, Theo Epstein is considering a trade that would bring back Nomar Garciaparra. Gil Santos is studying at the altar of Sean Grande. John Henry is calling Wyc Grousbeck for financial advice, and the Patriots are firing off letters to the Globe, claiming the Celtics are getting too much coverage.

Shamrocks are everywhere you look. Max is bigger than Jerry Remy, and Wally the Green Monster is worshiping at the feet of Lucky the Leprechaun. You know the Celtics are hot when Clint Eastwood accepts his Oscar and tells the world that Mo Cuishle was his secret tribute to the championship-driven Boston Celtics.

OK, so nothing in the previous two paragraphs is actually true. But here's something just as outrageous regarding the sudden surge in Celtic interest: Wyc thinks his Celtics have an outside shot to win the NBA championship. This year.

"I think we're one of the top eight teams in the league," the owner said after practice yesterday (a practice that drew more minicams than any previous Celtic workout this season). "I saw the Patriots win their first Super Bowl and they lost some games at the start of that season. The Red Sox went .500 for a period of time last year. Our hope is that we can put something together this year. We'd like to be the third team in town to win a championship. Hey, if you don't set a big goal, you don't get anywhere."

Forgive the owner's innocent exuberance. His media skills are rusty. It's been a while since anyone bothered to talk with him. The Celtics have been stealth bombers for a couple of years, seldom appearing on the local sports radar screen. But now they have a chance to win the woebegone Atlantic Division, they open a six-game homestand tonight with the Lakers, and they've gotten our attention with the reacquisition of Antoine Walker.

The Celtics won two fairly exciting games out West after trading for Walker last week, and tonight the new Toine returns to the New Garden, wearing No. 88 and a wide smile.

Doc Rivers calls it "the evolution of Antoine." The coach said Walker is in better shape than he was last time he toiled for the Celtics. Rivers also claimed that Walker will "attack the basket, attack the rim, get to the free throw line, and move the ball" before hoisting his favorite 3-point shots.

So even though Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish may not be walking through that door anymore, you can be sure that Walker will be ducking under the transom at the Causeway Gym. And don't be surprised if he's followed by Gary Payton. Who knows? Maybe Ainge will bring back Vin Baker and Sidney Wicks before it's over.

This is the perfect moment for the Great Celtic Revival. The Bruins are locked out. The Patriots are on vacation. The Red Sox are stretching in Fort Myers, going through the motions of what looks like a controversy-free spring training (very unSoxlike, but so is winning a World Series). It's a good time for the Celtics to return to the consciousness of local sports fans. They might even be able to put together a little playoff run. They have talented new players (take a long look at Al Jefferson) and they've reunited Walker and Paul Pierce.

"We are a better team now than we were before Antoine left," said Grousbeck. "We know we've been in the background as far as television ratings and ticket sales, but that doesn't inhibit what we're trying to do. These last few days we've all had a spring in our step. This is the time of year when people start looking at the NBA. Having those other championship teams in our town is a good feeling and we want to be worthy of being in that company."

Rivers isn't jealous of the attention the Sox and Patriots got while his team struggled to stay above sea level.

"You have to earn those things," said the coach. "Those banners we have, they were earned. The loyalty of the fans was earned, but that doesn't put fans in seats. But because of the teams that came before us, we have a great fan base and loyalty. When we get this right, this will be the toughest ticket in town."

In the meantime, they are one game over .500, with a 1 1/2-game lead atop their division and a chance for a sellout against the Lakers tonight. Walker is going to make them interesting for the rest of the year.

They're not going to win the NBA championship, but they might win the Atlantic and make some noise in the playoffs. And as long as Wyc promises not to hang a "division champion" flag from the rafters, we'll all be OK.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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