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'With Garnett back, C's remain contenders'

The 2012 playoffs could have worked as an exit scene for Kevin Garnett. The 36-year-old was brilliant during Boston's run to the Eastern Conference finals. He played like the Hall of Famer he is sure to be, and not like the aging 7-foot shell he appeared to be too many times during the 2010 and 2011 playoffs. It wouldn't have been going out on top, but it would have been close.

But there won't be any exit scenes or retirement parties for Garnett just yet. He has reportedly agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Celtics worth $34 million, and that's extremely good news for Boston.

Just as Garnett could have fittingly departed, the Celtics could have continued without him. They could have built around the young backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, the final years of Paul Pierce's amazing career, and whatever other pieces Danny Ainge might have brought in. Depending on those pieces, the health of Pierce and the develop-

ment of Rondo and Bradley, Boston might have even contended for another title in the next year or two. Now, with the return of Garnett, there's no doubt the Celtics are contenders for the crown.

Without Garnett, there would have been transition in Boston as the team developed a new identity and new leaders emerged. That's unnecessary now. The crew at the TD Garden better re-pad the basket stanchions because Garnett will be banging his sweaty head against them for the next three years, and the rest of the team will be following his lead. As long as Garnett is around, the Celtics will remain tough-minded, defensive-oriented and insanely competitive. That's just the way the fans, and Doc Rivers, like them, and the way they've won as much as they have during the first five years of Garnett's time in Boston. In that span, the Celtics have won one title, been to two Finals and three Conference finals, and compiled a 273-121 regular-season record.

While there's little doubt Boston will remain Garnett's team, there will surely be some natural transition in leadership and identity as the younger players continue to emerge. But now that shift can happen gradually with Garnett there to lead the way. He will surely make a huge impact on newly drafted big men Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, just like he helped Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Glen Davis, Greg Steimsma and many others before them. He can continue to mentor/corral Rondo, who has a competitive fire like Garnett's that he still needs to work on controlling.

Giving a 36-year-old a three-year deal is not often a wise move in the NBA, but this is no average 36-year-old. Garnett's intellect, experience and ability to teach is so valuable, it alone might be worth three or four million a year. So even if his play does deteriorate in the last year of the deal, he still will be worth the price tag. But given the way Garnett got stronger as last season went on (he averaged 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game during the regular season, but increased those numbers to 19.2 ppg and 10.3 rpg in the playoffs), there shouldn't be much deterioration next year.

Just how well Garnett holds up is still, of course, a variable, but no matter what happens, the Celtics have to be happy with that new price tag. Garnett made around $20 million per year for his first five years in Boston. This new deal will pay him about half that amount, and taking such a huge pay cut does so many positive things for Boston.

First of all, and most tangibly, it gives Ainge more flexibility to sign other free agents. It also will allow Garnett to back off the alpha dog role when (and if) Rondo becomes ready to assume that mantle both on and off the court. And the discounted deal shows (although there really was nothing to question here) just how loyal and committed he is to Boston. Garnett has truly become a Celtic, and it probably won't take long after he really does retire for the franchise to hang his No. 5 in the rafters.

Before that happens, however, the Celtics will be trying to hang Banner 18 in the Garden. And now that Garnett is back, the way for them to do that becomes much clearer.

Boston needed frontcourt help whether or not Garnett returned. Ainge began addressing that issue on Thursday by drafting Sullinger and Melo, but he still needs to add another veteran free agent forward to create a roster capable of challenging for a title. It looks like that forward could be Jeff Green, who has expressed his desire to return to Boston (perhaps at a discount of his own) after the way the organization treated him last year when he was coping with serious heart issues. Without Garnett, just landing Green wouldn't have been enough. With him, Ainge could pursue wing free agents (perhaps even Ray Allen, or O.J. Mayo, whom Ainge has long coveted) once he signs that forward to complement Garnett, or Ainge can keep stockpiling big men.

What's important is that with Garnett back in the fold at a reasonable price, Boston has more options. It also has the face of its franchise back for three more years, all sweaty and scowling and hating to lose, just the way we like it.

(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com.)