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Bob Ryan

Celtics’ window still open

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 16, 2011
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Never thought we’d ever be discussing this topic in the year 2011.

The Boston Celtics: potential 2012 NBA champions?

For Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, it’s Year 5 as a unit. What was once the Big Three, Part 2, is now the Big IV. Then again, Rajon Rondo’s emergence as a genuine NBA star is a large part of the reason the Celtics are still being discussed with the NBA’s elite. There would be nothing to talk about if the Celtics had a mediocre point guard.

Still, Messrs. Pierce, Garnett, and Allen were universally assumed to have a three-year window of opportunity to produce a championship, no matter who surrounded them. They got the job done in the first year, which certainly justified all of Danny Ainge’s maneuverings. An injury to Garnett damaged their chances of winning in the second year. An untimely injury to Kendrick Perkins hindered their opportunity to win in the third year (although let’s not forget that Game 7 in LA turned from plus-3 to minus-6 in one lightning 90-second span of the fourth period). Last year they were just whupped by Miami.

Ainge could have broken up the gang in some way, acknowledging the end of a brief era and moving on with a new personnel plan. Doc Rivers could have taken a personal sabbatical, watching his four offspring play, dispensing a little punditry and, finally, choosing among the lucrative coaching offers that would surely come his way at the conclusion of the 2011-12 NBA season.

Neither of these things happened.

Nope, Danny and Doc remain one of the NBA’s closest management-coaching duos and each appears to be of the belief that winning an 18th Celtics championship is an attainable goal. No, they’re not a prime favorite, but the idea of Boston celebrating after the final game of the upcoming season isn’t being dismissed as ludicrous, either.

However . . .

A starting lineup that includes a 33-year-old, a 34-year-old, a 35-year-old, and a 36-year-old?

A point guard who commands scant respect as a face-the-basket scoring threat and who is a subpar free throw shooter?

A bench that does not have a single player whose job description on his income tax form reads “Drop-dead jump shooter’’?

In the abstract, such a team would be given little chance of being so much as a .500 team, let alone a championship contender. Clearly, the 2011-12 Celtics are an abnormal entity.

Let’s start with the 36-year-old. He may be an alien, an android, or some such creature. Ray Allen long ago made a mockery of the shooting guard actuarial tables. Do you realize he is coming off his best shooting year ever, both in terms of 3-point percentage (.444) and overall percentage (.491)? Even a little slippage would keep him among the league’s great shooters. Allen is a freak, and, happily, he’s our freak.

The 35-year-old does need a little coaching TLC, but Kevin Garnett sure gets it from Rivers, who monitors his minutes, well, minutely. KG’s average minutes in four years under Doc: 32.8, 31.1, 29.9, 31.3. KG’s yearly field goal percentage under Doc: .539, .531, .521, .528. Must mean somethin’.

The 34-year-old just keeps getting smarter. Already the most inventive all-around Celtic scorer ever, he has now become the most flat-out fun guy to watch. Paul Pierce has the best Old School/New School combination of offensive skill and savvy in the league.

The 33-year-old is a giant? That’s for sure. If any of this championship dreaming is to materialize, Jermaine O’Neal must play far longer and far better than he did last year. He’s talking the talk. We’ll see about the other rhyming part.

Are you worried about Rondo? Don’t be. He may have been a bit put off by the Chris Paul trade talk, but when the bell rings he will play. It may be a wee bit too soon to say “He is what he is, and always will be,’’ with regard to the individual face-the-basket offense, but if we have to settle for him as he is, there are many teams that would like to be the ones doing the settling. Among his other attributes, he knows the druthers of his elder statesmen All-Star teammates.

The bench? Ah, this is where the fun starts. Put me down as one who will miss Baby, a sui generis player who was always loads of fun - for us. Doc? Not so much. There was always a little too much drama circulating about Glen Davis, and it’s good for everyone he moveth on. Brandon Bass, a fellow Baton Rouge and LSU player, is more orthodox and, presumably, more reliable.

Now if something really is wrong with Jeff Green, that becomes a problem. He can be a valuable leg-saving adjunct to the frontcourt. He is a better player than Boston fans saw last year. That’s a guarantee. He just has to get on the court.

We got a whiff of Marquis Daniels last year, and it’s good to have him back. He serves Doc’s purposes in many ways. Keyon Dooling isn’t much of a shooter, but he is a sound veteran guard who isn’t going to beat himself. Chris Wilcox came out of college with no discernible game or position; he was just a generic “Big.’’ In his two best years for Seattle, he averaged a rounded-off 14 points and eight rebounds. He’s 29, and now on his fifth team (the 31-year old Dooling is on his sixth). This means Wilcox is experienced, but flawed. Or flawed, but experienced.

If slender rookie JaJuan Johnson is ready to contribute, great. The same goes for his college teammate, E’Twaun Moore.

The coach of this team is the ideal man for the job. Rivers has got the X’s and O’s under control and he is the absolute master of the people-managing bit. He will extract as much as possible from this group.

So, yes, a great many things, some of them improbable, would have to go right for this team to challenge. The short season, the compressed game span . . . all that stuff constitutes a Great Unknown. The important thing to remember is that it’s the fifth year of a three-year plan.

They’re playing with house money, folks. Sit back, relax, and see what happens.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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