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With health, experience on their side, Celtics among title contenders

There are multiple candidates for the 2011 NBA championship. The Lakers are ensconced in first place, planning on a three-peat with Kobe at the controls. The Mavericks are a surprising 19-4 and the old Spurs at the Alamo have the best record in the NBA at 20-3. You can always make a case for the Orlando Magic, and I've read a couple of stories about a group of superstars who took their talents to South Beach in Miami.

But I like the Boston Celtics.

Call me a homer, if you must, but the Celtics are scalding and probably have their best basketball in front of them as they take a 10-game winning streak into Madison Square Garden against the revived Knicks on Wednesday night.

None of us thought this was coming when the Celtics roared into the NBA Finals in June. The old C's looked like they were on their last legs. We figured Doc Rivers was going to retire and that Ray Allen might be traded. Paul Pierce had the option to become a free agent, and starting center Kendrick Perkins demolished his knee in Game 6 at the Staples Center. It was the last roundup for the Old Guard and the Celts came up short in Game 7.

But they all came back. Rivers shocked the NBA by announcing that he would return. Then Pierce, after opting out, signed a four-year contract. General manager Danny Ainge held on to Allen (with a new two-year deal), then went out and picked up an old center by the name of Shaquille O'Neal. And it has worked out beautifully.

Perkins is expected to return around the All-Star break. In the meantime, Rivers is rolling out a starting lineup of four Hall of Famers -- Shaq, Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett -- plus one of the best point guards in basketball, Rajon Rondo.

It has been a magical combination. O'Neal has embraced his new city and his new role and is averaging 11 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He is one of six Celtics averaging in double figures in scoring. It is the old Celtic way, like the Red Auerbach days of 11 championships in 13 years when Boston never had a scoring champion.

Rondo is averaging a whopping 14 assists per game. Pierce and Allen are doing what they always do. But it is the play of Garnett that frightens everyone else in the NBA.

After delivering a championship in his first Boston season, KG missed the 2009 playoffs with a knee injury. He underwent surgery but was not the same player in 2009-10. Now he is back. He has 11 double-doubles in 23 games. Nobody beats him on the baseline this year. Nobody dunks on him. He is kicking butts and taking names, blocking shots and cleaning the glass. Like a young KG.

The bench isn't bad either. "Big Baby" Glen Davis is averaging 11 points and five rebounds. Nate Robinson is a modern microwave. And there's a new backup center, 7-foot Turk Semih Erden, Ainge's latest find from overseas.

The Celtics have the big names and the scorers and the Hall of Famers, but they win because they play better defense than anyone else. They play with the hunger of youth. Rivers has them buying into the same system that produced a championship when the Big Three first played together, in 2007-08.

"You have a tendency to worry about your offense," Allen said after Saturday's win over Charlotte in which the Celtics shot 43.7 percent and held the Bobcats to 33.8 percent and 62 points. "But if you go down on the defensive end and say, 'We'll just try to score off our stops and try to create turnovers and get the ball and get some layups.' It's almost like the Baltimore Ravens when they won the Super Bowl a couple years back. Sometimes you've got to use your defense to score."

Leave it to the Celtics to have a guy who can reference a 10-year-old Super Bowl as "a couple years back."

The challenge for Rivers is to have healthy, rested players come April. Shaq has already missed seven games. Rondo (hamstring) missed four but is playing too many minutes. Boston must resist the temptation to win games in December at the expense of May. Home-court advantage is great, but just getting to the playoffs should be enough with this crew. There are many days off in the playoffs and no back-to-back games, and that plays to Boston's advantage.

The Celtics are 10-1 at home, 9-3 on the road, 15-2 in the conference and 2-0 against the Heat. Imagine if the Celtics were to play the Heat in the conference finals. Shaq back in Miami, LeBron again trying to beat the Boston beast -- it could be one of the great showdowns of all time.

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