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Celtics a piece or two away from being true contenders

In the past nine days, the Celtics have played the way Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers envisioned in training camp.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

In the past nine days, the Celtics have played the way Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers envisioned in training camp.

What Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has to ask himself over the next six weeks is whether his bench can maintain this production, whether the presence of Avery Bradley is actually that meaningful, and whether his two future Hall of Famers have enough to carry this team through the postseason.

That’s a lot to ponder, but in the past nine days, the Celtics have played the way Ainge and coach Doc Rivers envisioned in training camp, using depth, defensive prowess, and the effectiveness of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to win games.

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When the Celtics lost Ray Allen to the Miami Heat, they never really replaced him. Jason Terry may not be that third offensive wheel that relieved Pierce and Garnett in years past. He is averaging 10.6 points — the lowest since his rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks — and his 42.7 percent shooting is his lowest mark in nine years.

Terry’s role has been ever-changing. During their five-game winning streak, the Celtics have depended on the production of rookie Jared Sullinger, some reliable scoring from Jeff Green and Courtney Lee to blend with the defensive improvement, and the production of Pierce and Garnett.

“I think there’s a lot of little things,” said Rivers. “We’ve decided to defend as a group full-time, and stay committed to it. Avery’s return has helped.

“The second unit now has a second unit; you know Jet’s not in the first unit or Courtney. It’s pretty solidified who the second unit is, so now when we practice, that group’s always together. So I think there’s a lot of little things to it.”

There was a reason (in addition to avoiding the luxury tax) that Ainge waived Jarvis Varnado and Kris Joseph: to clear salary-cap space for a potential move. Not that he was preparing for a blockbuster deal, but he wanted to give the team a chance — in a home-heavy January — to find itself, and it has regained its confidence.

The Celtics not only beat the Knicks Monday without Rajon Rondo, they responded with an impressive win Friday over the Rockets, a team that dominated them in the second half last month at Toyota Center. With the Knicks struggling, the Celtics have shaved New York’s lead in the Atlantic Division from seven games to four in the span of five days.

The Eastern Conference has turned out to be less imposing than expected. The Heat have been inconsistent, especially on the road, and the Celtics entered Saturday just five games behind Miami with 46 to play.

There have been injuries (Derrick Rose, Danny Granger), inconsistency (Brooklyn), and disappointments (Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee), opening the opportunity for the Celtics to finish in the upper division.

With Garnett and Pierce on their final legs, the Celtics have no choice but to compete for a championship this year, unless Ainge decides to rebuild and interrupt the final Big Three run. What the Celtics need is a younger, more reliable scorer off the bench that can allow Pierce and Garnett to rest and, as they did Friday, power the club in the fourth quarter.

That was supposed to be Lee and Terry, but they have proven to be streaky scorers who are more of a supplement. The Celtics missed out on Jamal Crawford as they tried to re-sign Allen, and they need a score-first player capable of a 20-point game.

This is not the juggernaut team of 2008 or even the defensively skilled club of 2010 that reached the Finals. It’s time to stop comparing Celtics teams simply because they all featured Pierce, Garnett, and Rondo. But these Celtics can turn into a serious contender with a few tweaks.

They need another center, and perhaps with another month or two of experience in the NBADL, Fab Melo can fill a bench role in place of Jason Collins. They need that volume scorer along with the continued development of Bradley and Sullinger.

Pierce and Garnett will remain security blankets, but they could use a breather. Ainge acquired Lee, Green, and Terry as depth to give the mainstays some rest, and that approach has been effective in the past five games.

They have not been as maddeningly inconsistent and mistake-prone as they were in the first 31 games, but they are also still shy of being a legitimate threat for the Finals, and Ainge has about six weeks to rectify that.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.
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