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Boston Celtics

Bulked-up Rondo part of why Celtics can contend with Heat

Watching the Heat raise a banner before Tuesday’s season opener against the Celtics might make some Boston fans a bit queasy. Witnessing LeBron James slip on that first ring could induce a cold sweat. And seeing Ray Allen in a Miami uniform may leave a rotten taste.

Maybe it won’t be so bad, because the Heat probably won’t overdo the ceremony … well, okay, so chances are good it will be another WWE-style carnival. Still, once the theatrics are over and Boston followers have brushed their teeth, they can look forward to an improved Celtics team in 2012-13.

Here are four reasons why Boston will be better than last year’s version that lost to Miami in a seven-game Eastern Conference final. And the optimism is followed by two reasons to be worried that queasy feeling you may get Tuesday night will return in the playoffs.

Rondo: bigger shoulders, bigger chip

One recent look at Rajon Rondo tells you he spent the offseason adding muscle. The extra bulk will help Rondo handle the beating an NBA season puts on a 186-pound point guard. And he figures to need all the bulk he can get this year because, with Boston’s other stars aging or gone, he’ll be asked to do more than ever. The good news is Rondo has shown he can handle more responsibility.

While his jumper is still clunky, Rondo has developed the ability to score more when needed. His ego may cause some trouble in the locker room, but it also gives him enough swagger to lead the team and go toe-to-toe with opposing stars, like he did last year against James in the playoffs. And he’s still the best passer in the league, still an elite defender, and still scary competitive. And don’t forget, the permanent chip on Rondo’s shoulders probably got bigger after he was snubbed by the Olympic team. At least he’s got the bulked up shoulders to carry it.

Ray who?

When Allen took less money to go the Heat and leave Boston, concern swept across Celtics Nation. Even now fans are worried about how much their team will miss Allen and how much he will help the Heat. Here’s some advice: Don’t worry about it.

First, remember that Allen could barely stand by the end of last season because the bone spurs in his ankles were so bad. Second, and most importantly, Danny Ainge replaced Allen with better options in Courtney Lee and Jason Terry. Yes, I know New Englanders have a sentimental spot for Allen the UConn grad, and that he was heavily involved in charity and the community. But don’t let that blind you. Lee is 10 years younger, a significantly better defender and can keep up with Rondo on the fast break. Terry is better at creating his own shot (something the Celtics lacked last year) and is comfortable coming off the bench for Boston (Allen was not). And while neither of them pose the same long range threat as Allen, a career 40-percent 3-point shooter, Terry’s career 3-point percentage is 38 and Lee’s is 38.6.

Jeff Green’s couch

Green never really fit in when he arrived in Boston in the middle of the 2010-11 season. He was traded for a popular player in Kendrick Perkins and he was trying to find his niche on an intense team playing under the pressure of a championship-or-bust mentality. Plus, his furniture got lost on the way from Oklahoma City.

Okay, that last part about the furniture is fiction, but here’s the point: There’s been plenty of time for Green’s couch, and comfort, to arrive in New England. He had to sit out last year with a heart condition, but he spent time in Boston and even attended playoff games despite not being under contract with the team. That extra time, plus his first full preseason with the team, should allow Green to harness the potential we’ve all been hearing about since he arrived. At his best, Green is a dynamic combo forward who is effective in transition and can score and defend all over the court.

Doc’s orders

The addition of Terry, Lee, Leandro Barbosa and Jason Collins, the drafting of Jared Sullinger, the re-signing of Brandon Bass, and the return of Green, Chris Wilcox and Avery Bradley from health issues clearly gives Boston more depth than it had last year. And since Doc Rivers has developed into one of the best coaches in the league, that depth should go to good use.

Rivers has the ability to match lineups, or create mismatches, with nearly any team in the league. He can go big or small, he can play a fast-breaking group or a half-court unit, he can throw out a defensive lineup or an offensive lineup. Plus, Rivers has multiple worthwhile options for resting those who need it. Well, okay, he has worthwhile options at most positions, which leads us back to those queasy feelings.

The frontcourt punch line

The most important player for Rivers to rest is Kevin Garnett, but that’s the place of least depth for the Celtics. Honestly, the backup centers sound like some kind of joke. “So Jason Collins and Darko Milicic walk into a bar.”

Last year’s playoffs showed how important a rested, healthy and energetic Garnett is to the Celtics. With a spry Garnett manning the middle, Boston’s defense returned to championship levels, its offense gained the best jump-shooting big man in the league, and the Heat got taken to seven games. If Garnett can’t get rest this season because the backup big men can’t score (Collins and Milicic), can’t defend (Sullinger), can’t stay healthy (Wilcox), or simply aren’t ready (Fab Melo), Boston will be in trouble come the postseason. And even if Garnett’s 36-year-old body does hold up, he’s not exactly getting all-star help down low from this collection of big men.

The Heat

In the end, it all comes back to Miami, and these Celtics have been constructed to beat the Heat. Lee and Bradley can tag team on Dwyane Wade. Green can help Paul Pierce with James. The lumbering centers can hack away at both with a surplus of fouls. Terry can provide the kind of offensive spark that Miami’s defense snuffed out all too often last year.

The problem is, the Heat got better, too. James has the championship monkey off his back and seems poised, somehow, to rise to yet another level of super-stardom. Wade and Chris Bosh will likely be more healthy than they were last year. Allen and Rashard Lewis give Miami more depth and 3-point shooting. The young point guard duo of Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers will be improved with a year of experience. The Celtics are better equipped to handle all these challenges than they were last year, but if Miami is firing on all cylinders in June, the upgrades might not be enough.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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