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Back in action, Celtics must act quickly

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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The tentative agreement reached by NBA players and owners to end the lockout after 149 days will shoot teams into a spring-loaded offseason with a two-week window for preseason and free agency before the start of a 66-game regular season on Christmas.

With that, the questions for a Celtics team coming off a second-round playoff exit that seems like ages ago are plenty.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge yesterday declined comment until the deal is ratified. Once that happens, he will have decisions to make, and he will have to make them quickly as the team has just nine players under its control.

Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are both in the final year of their contracts, and Jeff Green’s restricted free agent status is a loose end dangling, along with unrestricted free agents Glen Davis and Delonte West.

In the short term, Ainge will have to determine the face of this year’s team - a seeming contender in the Eastern Conference - but with his superstars creeping into the twilight of their careers, he will also have to decide the franchise’s long-term direction. And he’ll have to do it with time already run off the clock.

Commissioner David Stern said he expects training camps to open Dec. 9. If Christmas holds as Opening Day, the Celtics will begin against the Knicks as a part of a holiday tripleheader. But the two weeks in between will be a whirlwind.

In a thin free agent pool, the Celtics will likely be bargain shoppers, but there are a few items already in the cart. Davis and West have both made it known that they want to return, although they both have baggage.

Davis and coach Doc Rivers clashed, but despite coming into his own as a screen-setting, charge-taking sixth man, Davis was, by his own admission, lost during the playoffs last season.

West, who dealt with legal issues going into last season, was generally on his best behavior, but he couldn’t stay healthy. He will likely want long-term security, but giving a multiyear deal to a player who has never played a full season in seven years appears risky.

The nebulous future of Allen (36) and Garnett (35) beyond this season is a concern that captain Paul Pierce expressed a week ago at Rajon Rondo’s charity game at Harvard. The past two years, the breakup of the Big Three has loomed, but the threat this lockout-shortened season posed for their run was real, Pierce said.

“That’s a great possibility, because we’re not getting any younger,’’ said Pierce, 34. “KG and Ray are on the last year of their deal. So we don’t really know the future as far as after this year, especially with those two guys.

“Me and Rondo are locked in for a couple more years after that, but who knows what direction the team will want to go in after that? That’s a huge concern.’’

Then there’s the matter of whether the shortened schedule helps or hurts a team with high mileage, such as the Celtics.

Pierce, who said he was selective about which pickup games he played in during the lockout to keep his legs fresh, subscribes to the positive theory.

“If there’s a 50- or 60-game season - advantage, Celtics,’’ he said. “I think the last four years, we’ve been the best team in the first four months of the season.’’

Fast starts are a habit for the Celtics (23-5 to start the past two seasons, 27-2 to start 2008-09, and 29-3 to start 2007-08) and the notion is that having fewer games works in the favor of veterans.

The counter argument, though, is that there will be 66 games jammed into a tighter time frame, with more back-to-backs (which have tortured the Celtics the past two seasons) and less time to recover. The way the original schedule was crafted, there would have been 58 games from Dec. 25 to the end of the season; now, eight more games will be squeezed in.

“I know you guys think they’re old, but I see them daily,’’ Rondo said at his event. “They’re three of the hardest workers on the team. Obviously, it takes a wear and tear on your body, the age, but they’re in the weight room, they’re in the gym, they’re getting extra cardio in. So I’m not worried about those guys.’’

But, Rondo added, “It’s just the guys we bring in.’’

After missing training camp last year, Avery Bradley’s first true camp will be a crash course. Ditto for Green, if he returns. He had to learn on the run after being acquired from Oklahoma City in midseason, and he’ll be shortchanged on the chance to pick up the Celtics’ system.

“It’s a lost opportunity, but not just with Jeff, it’s other guys, too,’’ Rondo said. “It’s not just one team at a disadvantage, we all have good and bad as far as the lockout as far as timing and chemistry, but we’ll pick it up.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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