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Celtics showing good signs

Ray Allen’s return to action after getting injured Monday had to be inspirational. Ray Allen’s return to action after getting injured Monday had to be inspirational. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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It required a couple of elbows from Carmelo Anthony and Jared Jeffries to knock the Celtics back into focus, that special place where they are capable of dominating games and where Rajon Rondo controls the pace with mastery.

Now the task is to stay there. There are 13 games left in the regular season, and the Celtics are battling the Bulls and Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Now that the schedule becomes slightly softer — with the Grizzlies and Bobcats coming into TD Garden this week before a road game at Minnesota — the Celtics have a chance to gather all their new pieces and complete the cohesion process while racking up victories against lesser opponents.

That has not been easy the past couple of years. Monday’s 96-86 victory over New York was evidence that the old Celtics still exist; they pummeled the Knicks for the final two quarters and the defense is beginning to befuddle opponents more consistently.

Something seemed to click during an emotionally charged night at Madison Square Garden, and there were signs that the Celtics are approaching normalcy. After watching the first half from the tunnel, Shaquille O’Neal reintroduced himself to the NBA public by watching the Celtics win from the bench.

But it wasn’t all jokes for O’Neal. As reporters left Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni’s pregame press conference, they walked past a profusely sweating O’Neal on the stationary bike as he closes in on a return after nearly two months on the shelf.

The Celtics are beginning to find the chemistry that was lost when Kendrick Perkins was traded, and perhaps the biggest sign of mental fortitude was Ray Allen returning to the game after getting seven stitches above his right eye from a Jared Jeffries elbow.

After feeling dizzy and experiencing headaches, Allen could have sat out the rest of the game, but he returned and at least added a perimeter threat to the cause. The Celtics refused to be physically beaten by a Knicks team that has shown more bark than bite this season.

“I bled throughout the game but better to be on the floor for me and for the team than sitting back here,’’ Allen said. “We’ve been getting [physical play] across the board regardless of what team that we’re playing and their record and regardless of what conference.

“We like to say that we’re always ready to battle with different teams. It’s the game that we’re used to playing and we have to make sure we bring that fight.’’

Tonight’s game against Memphis is as significant as Monday’s or the Saturday win over New Orleans because Chicago continues to win and the Celtics have to keep pace. Remaining focused is the idea.

“In order to be a good team these days, you can’t have those letdowns,’’ said Kevin Garnett.

An encouraging sign of progress was the performance of Rondo, who was the offensive conductor again with 13 points and 12 assists. Those shots that he passed up in previous games he aggressively attempted.

Nursing a sprained thumb and various other injuries, Rondo sparked the club with hustle plays, something the Celtics had been lacking. When they suddenly turned it on during last year’s postseason, they took nothing for granted, capitalizing on nearly every opponent mistake and opportunity.

The Celtics showed Monday they have plenty of fight left.

“What y’all don’t understand is the feistiness is from our coach,’’ Garnett said. “Our coach teaches a certain style and we try to carry out what he wants on the floor.

“Doc [Rivers], he preaches firm. He preached owning your own space and those things, and when you are not around that and new to that, you just don’t get that in one or two days or one or two weeks. Or one or two months. It’s something he’s going to drill in you.

“We are a physical basketball team but we’re not promoting anything that’s dirty or over the top or extra. We just play firm basketball every night. We’re not out here trying to hurt nobody but we play very hard every night.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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