Comeback Trail

Allen making slow climb as he regains his hops and rediscovers his game

Tony Allen's been back for a while.

Unfortunately, his explosive athleticism is still coming back at it's own pace.

That said, over the last few games it's been obvious that Allen's starting to get reacquainted with the skills that define his game. His quick first step is there; he's already burned a few guys off the dribble in the last few games. He torched the Pacers on one drive with a memorable crossover move that would have made Tim Hardaway smile. And there was a rebounding play under the basket Friday night in which he almost hit his head on the bottom of the backboard while sailing along the baseline.

All of these are encouraging signs for a guy who says he's been "up and down like a roller coaster" this season thanks to a right knee that wouldn't stop swelling on him. That knee kept him off the floor for most of the first half of the season, and reduced him to layups on fast breaks where SportsCenter-worthy, wheels-up dunks once ruled supreme.

But the dunks, while not yet the spectacular, jaw-dropping variety he displayed last season, have crept back in to the repertoire. He's taking the ball to the basket hard and knocking down jumpers with regularity.

And Monday, a night after keying the Celtics fourth quarter run with 12 of his 14 points in the period, Allen demonstrated his most convincing performance by scoring 18 points and blocking four shots off the bench in 29 minutes and playing cheap-suit defense against Kobe Bryant in Boston's 105-97 loss to the Lakers at the Garden.

"I thought his defense was amazing," said Coach Doc Rivers, who made a point of recognizing Allen right off the bat in his postgame address. "I thought he played and competed against Kobe, I don't think he ever backed down. He's really playing winning basketball right now and that's good to see."

If you only look at Bryant's points, the box score doesn't really reveal Allen's efforts. The key here is that Bryant needed 39 shots to get his 43 points, and 10 of those points came from the line. Allen stayed on his shooting hand, even blocking three of Bryant's shots. He was in Bryant's face on several others, forcing him to fade away or use his turnaround to get his shots away.

Allen's effectiveness has always been predicated on his unusual athletic ability. And while he's not quite jumping out of the gym just yet, but over the last few games it's pretty obvious that Allen is gradually recapturing his game. He certainly would have liked to have seen this happen earlier in the season, but at this point he's just happy that he can pitch in. Allen is quite comfortable with his role, even if it is somewhat limited these days.

"I just try to give those guys a lift and just do whatever I can," said Allen. "Whether it's passing Gatorade's or whatever it is. I just want to help."

Bryant definitely felt Allen's presence, and thought that the Celtics did as well.

"He played hard for them. I think he brought an energy to the ballgame that they needed. They seemed to be a? little flat, and he came into the game and really energized them," said Bryant.

Paul Pierce, who before the game noted that he tried to keep Allen positive while he was out with the injury, needed a pick-me-up after twisting his ankle early in the game. He agreed that the team got a lift from Allen.

"Tony's been phenomenal lately," said Pierce. "He's picking it up each and every game, the last five games, he's really giving us a big spark off the bench and that's good to see him come along."

Allen's energy, especially on the defensive end, is what made him a starter at shooting guard last season, and even at three-quarters strength (Allen's own estimate of "75%"), it's clear that he's the Celtics' best one-on-one defender. And while a month ago, Rivers probably wouldn't have asked Allen to try to stay with Bryant, both the coach and the player seem confident in his gradually returning abilities.

The next step: start jumping out of the gym like "The Old TA". When he gets his explosiveness back, Allen will be the high-flying game-changer he was last season.

"I just try and push every time I get a chance," said Allen of his missing hops. "On the break or rebound, I just push it hard."

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