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Celtics believe their ship has come in

It may be hard to remember a recent Celtic scene with more sheer optimism. Kevin Garnett, fresh in from the Twin Cities (and not from a cruise) in the middle of the table, a broad smile, flanked by a beaming Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. No, they're not the new Big Three yet; Danny Ainge made that clear yesterday. They haven't won anything.

But the mere addition of the 6-foot-11-inch Garnett, who is under wraps for five years, has shaken the foundation of the Eastern Conference and awakened a somnolent Celtic nation like a 7.5 Richter scale earthquake. has put the Celtics at 5-2 to win the Eastern Conference (the favorite) and gulp -- 5-1 -- to win the 2008 NBA championship, trailing only the Mavericks, Suns, and Spurs. "From low expectations to high expectations, that's what we want," Doc Rivers said.

Or, as Pierce noted, "I asked for veterans. I didn't expect to get a 12-time All-Star."

Hey, he's only been to 10 All-Star Games, but who's counting?

Garnett made his first appearance as a Celtic last night, capping a whirlwind 72 hours that he described as "like being in a Lamborghini driving 200 with your head stuck out of the window." He passed his physical at New England Baptist Hospital, signed a three-year extension (for roughly $60 million) to the two years he had remaining, and then was hoping to find a quiet spot in the North End for some dinner after his dinnertime news conference.

He will wear No. 5 "because I was the No. 5 pick in '95." He also considered No. 4. He really wanted No. 2 (in honor of his former teammate, the late Malik Sealy) but it wasn't available. You can see his face in a Celtics jersey (sort of) on the team's website in the link for tickets. As one season ticket-holder said last night, "My seats will finally be worth what I'm paying."

Getting Garnett was a monumental coup for Ainge and the Celtics, as was the go-get-'em attitude by ownership, which now will have to deal with the dreaded luxury tax down the road. So what? This is Kevin Garnett. "This was an opportunity that came along," said Robert Epstein, one of the team's owners. "How do you let something like this go by?"

They couldn't. They didn't. They had Garnett in their grasp a month ago, but the situation wasn't right. He didn't want any part of joining a 24-win team. But after the draft-night addition of Ray Allen, and with the rather transparent rebuilding effort about to happen in Minnesota, Garnett started to think about moving for the first time in his career.

"Initially, I had no interest leaving Minnesota," he said. "But after talking with [owner] Glen Taylor, his vision of the future was very different from mine. And when Boston [traded for] Ray Allen, the whole thing changed for me. I could see myself in a Celtics jersey. I went to my summer home [in Malibu, Calif.] and played some ball with Paul. He didn't say much.

"I guess at the end of the day, I'm loyal to a point where I feel if someone's loyal to me, then I have no problem with that. But when that changes, it's pretty easy for me. But I got to thinking this may be the best opportunity for me to win a ring. So, here we are."

It wasn't easy. He had been unflaggingly loyal to the Timberwolves for his entire career, but, as he noted, "I can't do young." And Minnesota is definitely doing young. So he did some due diligence. He said he left messages on all four of Pierce's cellphones, but didn't get a response. "I didn't recognize the area code," Pierce said, rather lamely. "It was the same on all four phones," Garnett quipped. He talked to Allen, with whom he had played on the 1999 US Olympic qualifying team and the 2000 Olympic team.

He sounded out former Celtics like Antoine Walker and Gary Payton for their views on life in Boston. He liked what he heard. He talked once more to the Timberwolves. He didn't like what he heard. So he made the call to get the process rolling again.

"Slowly, but surely, I got more comfortable with the situation," he said. "It feels good to be appreciated. It's good to recognize that."

Ainge and Rivers did the appropriate keening for the losses of the players dealt to the Wolves, Al Jefferson in particular. But even though the Celtics surrendered five players and two draft picks, they looked and felt like the winners last night. Garnett has put up frightening numbers in Minnesota, been a perennial All-NBAer, will be a dead bolt lock for the Hall of Fame, and -- shock to the system -- is usually a representative on the league's All-Defensive team. And he's going to be in Celtic green for five years.

Pierce said he was so excited that felt like a rookie again. "A big load has been taken off my back," he said. Garnett and Allen are only too willing to take that load off Pierce's back and share it -- and take the Celtics where they haven't been in two decades and where none of the three ever has been.

"We still have things to prove," Garnett cautioned. "But I will say this: We'll be a force to be reckoned with."

That's something no one could have said 48 hours earlier without a laugh track. Now, thanks to one man, it's pretty much gospel.