NEW YORK -- Tony Allen bounced around the visitors' team locker room at Madison Square Garden like an 8-year-old on a moonwalk. With rap music blaring in his ears, and some very off-key lyrics coming out of his mouth, Allen stalked the floor between the tightly confined walls, wearing a path in the cheap carpet. He executed crossover dribbles through a handful of reporters and exchanged emphatic high fives with teammates like he was still celebrating the NBA championship that the Celtics won four months ago.
Only Allen wasn't amped about the Celtics' 17th title. He was giddy over a game earlier this week. A preseason game.
It's hard to blame Allen for relishing any opportunity to play. Nearly two years removed from a devastating knee injury, Allen is considered by many to be the wild card in the Celtics' quest to repeat as champions.
When forward James Posey signed with New Orleans after last season, the 26-year-old Allen, himself an unrestricted free agent, was immediately penciled in as his replacement. And after a brief flirtation with Oklahoma City, Allen agreed to a two-year, $5 million contract to remain in Boston.
"I thought about Tony a lot [during the Posey negotiations]," Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said. "We kept in contact throughout the free-agent process. I kept telling him I wanted him back here and that this place was the best fit for him."
Ainge was disappointed by Posey's departure, but the Celtics aren't nervous about increasing Allen's role. The feeling in Boston is that while Posey was an invaluable piece to the championship puzzle because of his irreplaceable intangibles, the love affair with him spun out of control after he played a key role in the Celtics' 24-point comeback against the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. In fact, the Celtics believe Allen can be an even better fit, even though he isn't as good a three-point shooter as Posey. Allen is a gritty, versatile defender who, when healthy, has a slashing, sometimes acrobatic offensive game. He certainly doesn't lack confidence: Allen told local reporters recently that he was "better than James Posey."
"I got in trouble for saying that," Allen said with a laugh. "There was a big feud. Let's just say that we are two different type of players."
Said coach Doc Rivers: "I rather for him to show it and have [the media] say that. Let's hope he backs it up."
More than anything, Allen's health will determine his effectiveness. The major knee injury still weighs on his mind. In the waning moments of a game against Indiana in January 2007, Allen went up for an uncontested dunk well after the whistle had blown. When he came down, he tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee. Though he recovered sufficiently enough to start the 2007-08 season, it was clear to everyone -- Ainge, Rivers, even the player himself -- that Allen wasn't close to what he had been.
"I thought about my knee a lot last year," said Allen, the 25th pick in the 2004 draft. "I was scared to go up for a layup for a good three or four months."
Fully recovered, Allen has ditched the bulky knee brace in favor of a lighter protective sleeve.
"I just want to fight through it, all of it," Allen said. "There's still a strength level with the knee that I'd like to get to, but it feels so much better than last year."
That's good news for the Celtics, who will thrust Allen into the fire. With only rookies J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker playing behind him, Allen will be expected to eat up most of Posey's playing time from last season (24.5 minutes a game).
Though the Celtics continue to practice tough love with Allen -- "He's committing too many turnovers," Rivers said. "That's a quick way not to play" -- they have to be pleased with most of the early returns. Allen finished the preseason as the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 11.8 points in 26.8 minutes.
"This is a good time for Tony in his career," Ainge said. "What he brings, we need."
Said Allen: "I just want to get back to how I was before the knee injury. I just want to be relaxed and free and confident. When I'm playing like that, I know I can help the team."