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Jackie MacMullan

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A trade for Kevin Garnett turns the Celtics from pretenders to contenders

OK, now we're talking.

A week and a half ago, Danny Ainge and I were debating the merits of the Ray Allen deal. He was trying to convince me Allen was a sniper who took such excellent care of himself, he would be burying game-winning jumpers well into his late 30s. I countered with statistical evidence that very few shooting guards in the history of the league have flourished after the age of 32, and, according to the calendar, Allen already had reached that bench mark.

Ainge believed Allen would make his team significantly better. It sure looked to me like all Allen would do was elevate Boston into a fifth seed in the playoffs, and since when was that the goal? The Celtics' head of basketball operations insisted his team would be infinitely more exciting and more competitive this season, but I wasn't buying it.

I am now.

The acquisition of Kevin Garnett changes everything. Suddenly, pro basketball matters again in Boston. Suddenly, the networks will sit up, rub the sleep out of their eyes, and start looking for places to plug the Celtics into their national schedule.

And -- just like that -- you should consider this team as one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Think about it. What did Cleveland do to improve its roster? Detroit? Miami? Chicago is an up-and-coming team, but it couldn't quite land the proven veteran to put it over the top.

There are handful of players in the league who can provide the kind of instant impact Garnett does. He's a gifted scorer, a voracious rebounder, and a defensive presence who alters shots and intimidates offensive players. When's the last time a Celtic could boast that? He also has a deft passing touch for a big man. Garnett plays hard, plays long, and plays with an intensity that has been sorely lacking around here. He desperately wants to win -- now -- and with Allen and Paul Pierce in tow, he'll have a shot at accomplishing that.

When players of Garnett's caliber become available, it is necessary to act quickly. Breaking the news to Al Jefferson that he was about to become property of the Timberwolves must have been difficult, since both Ainge and coach Doc Rivers have developed a close relationship with their blossoming young big man, but this was a deal that had to be made.

Jefferson has the potential to be a repeat All-Star. If he continues to hone his low-post moves and develops some nastiness around the glass, he could wind up as another Elton Brand. That's nothing to sniff at, but it's not enough to hang on to, not when Garnett is there for the taking. Word tonight was Jefferson was crushed by the trade, but take solace, Big Al: You were swapped for a future Hall of Famer.

Last spring, the Celtics braintrust huddled and identified its most coveted young bargaining chips. Jefferson was obviously the most valuable and deemed expendable only under extraordinary circumstances. In other words, shipping Jefferson in a package for Garnett was viable, but swapping him for a player like Jermaine O'Neal simply wasn't going to happen.

The other young players on the "most coveted" list were Delonte West, Tony Allen, and Rajon Rondo.

Note the absence of Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes on that list. Green may well end up as a top-shelf talent in this league, but he isn't there yet -- despite what he believes. Green felt he warranted significant minutes and was shaping up as a bit of a headache for this coaching staff, which implored him to take the defensive end of the floor more seriously. Green is still 2-3 years away from being a consistent impact player. There are some within the organization who doubt he'll ever get there because of his inability to recognize his weaknesses. But Green is only 21, and he might just need a little more time to grow up.

Gomes is the type of player any team would like to have, because he is smart, savvy, and versatile, but let's put his contributions into perspective. On his best days, Gomes is a very nice, solid bench player. No more, no less.

Check the scoreboard over the past month. The Celtics lose Green and Gomes, two players they liked but had not identified as key ingredients of the future. They lose Jefferson and West, two players they hated to relinquish, but replace them with two All-Stars, Garnett and Allen. They rid themselves of Sebastian Telfair, whose me-first approach to the point guard position did him in with the coaches, and whose off-the-court transgressions buried him with the owner. They also jettisoned Wally Szczerbiak, the overpaid, oft-injured shooting guard who simply never developed any chemistry with his teammates here.

One thing is clear: The youth movement in Boston is officially terminated. The Celtics have decided to win now or bust. No one has to remind them how fleeting opportunities are to make a serious run at the championship. It has, after all, been 20 years since they've been to the Finals.

Give a tip of your hat to Irv and Wyc Grousbeck and the boys. They promised they would do what it takes to win, regardless of the cost, and they proved it today. Garnett's extension will cost them in excess of $120 million and some hefty luxury tax dollars down the road.

Boston's payroll is starting to resemble the roster of the New York Yankees. Let's hope it produces more success than the pinstripes in recent years.

If this blockbuster is to bear fruit, it must happen sooner than later. Allen is 32 and coming off double surgery on his feet. With a couple of notable exceptions (Reggie Miller, Michael Jordan), the numbers for shooting guards drop off significantly after 32. Let me save you some legwork. In charting the numbers for Mitch Richmond, Rolando Blackman, Jeff Hornacek, Clyde Drexler, Allan Houston, Dale Ellis, Sleepy Floyd, and Ricky Pierce, all showed fairly significant dropoffs in points per game and shooting percentage after 32.

Garnett is only 31, but he has logged considerable miles in his 12 seasons since coming out of high school as the fifth pick in the 1995 draft. Pierce will turn 30 in October and is coming off the first major injury of his career. None of these guys is getting any younger.

So who is left to help this new trio (sorry, I'm not calling these guys The Big Three under any circumstances)? There's Tony Allen, whose recovery from knee surgery continues to go well. He probably won't be fully operative until midseason, but when he is, he provides some needed defensive toughness.

Kendrick Perkins, who is probably best suited as a backup banger, will have to log minutes in the starting lineup without any illusions of scoring points. He will serve as the ultimate blue-collar garbage man.

Boston's fight to keep Rondo out of the Garnett deal is a huge vote of confidence for the young guard, but it's still imperative to add a veteran point guard to the mix as soon as possible. Until Rondo proves he consistently can knock down the 15-18 footer, he will be an offensive liability who will be exposed by the top teams in the playoffs.

That's right. That's what I said. The playoffs. Mark it down, people. Your Boston Celtics are going to the postseason next spring. You might want to keep May open.

And, with any luck at all, you might find yourself busy in June, too.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is