Still in his untucked game uniform, Tony Allen sat in the locker room with his surgically repaired right ankle submerged in an old mop bucket filled to the brim with ice water -- his reward after logging a season-high 25 minutes in Sunday's 122-104 triumph over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
After scoring a season-best 15 points off the bench, which included a few turn-back-the-clock dunks, Allen wore a pair of hulking ice packs over his knees -- and a wide smile.
Few could have envisioned this scene, Allen included, just a few weeks back. Playing in the final season of a two-year contract extension, and having already missed 56 games while on that contract, Allen seemed more likely to have one foot out the door than to be icing one from extended court time with the Boston Celtics.
But in Allen's sixth season in Boston, the Celtics might finally be getting the player they imagined when they chose the 6-foot-4 shooting guard out of Oklahoma State with the 25th pick in the 2004 NBA draft.
Believe it or not, Allen is the longest tenured member of the Celtics outside of Paul Pierce
(1998) and Kendrick Perkins (2003). He was part of the draft class in coach Doc Rivers' first season in Boston that included fellow first-round selections Al Jefferson and Delonte West.
Of a possible 436 regular-season games since arriving in Boston, Allen has played in just 288 (74 starts), averaging 7.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1 steal per game.
He's battled ankle, thumb and, most memorably, knee injuries. That's why everyone seems to be treading so carefully with Allen's recent resurgence. He's showing signs of being the player that averaged a career-best 11.5 points and 3.8 rebounds during the 2006-07 season, before he tore both his ACL and MCL on a post-whistle dunk attempt on Jan. 10, 2007 against the Indiana Pacers.
It's almost like some are waiting for the next head-shaking injury, the one that derails the latest Allen comeback. For now, teammates and coaches are reveling in what they have -- and the player Allen has been in the six games he's played this season.
"He has better focus now," Rivers said. "He's accepting his role. I think he realizes he's not going to be a 30-point-per-night scorer, like every other young guy believes they're going to be. You just have to stay in that spot.
"It happened with [Perkins]. He'd have a 25-point game and start thinking, 'I am an offensive player,' instead of realizing that those 25 points came off a great pick-and-roll or an extra pass. That's what Tony has to do now."
The Celtics always envisioned Allen as a defense-first guard -- the type of player who can come off the bench and lock down an opposing scorer. Rivers said Allen is playing the best stretch of solid defense -- not gamble defense -- since he's been with the Celtics.
Rivers has often said that Allen's offense is simply a bonus, but it's easy to see what kind of spark he can deliver with the ball in his hands. Multiple times since returning, he's delivered thunderous dunks. Against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, he howled with excitement after one big jam, seemingly acknowledging how far he's come.
As he gains more confidence -- and as he nears full health -- Allen is excited by what the future could hold.
"Confidence is all I need," he said. "Once the confidence comes, before you know it, I'm out there playing and doing things I never imagined I could do. Confidence is big.
"It seems the more I play, the more I surprise myself. If I can just keep doing the things I do to prepare for games, it's only going to get better as the year goes on."
Over the past six games, Allen is averaging 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.2 assists. His projected 36-minute totals (16.3 points, 7.2 rebounds) are his best since that 2006-07 season (16.9 points, 5.5 rebounds), indicating he truly may be regaining the form that left fans wondering about his true potential. Allen recovered from his serious knee injury that season to appear in 75 regular-season games during the 2007-08 season, but was largely unremarkable.
Just when he seemed to be turning the corner last season, he injured his thumb in practice and missed 36 games.
This season, when Marquis Daniels went down with a thumb injury of his own, the Celtics were desperate for quality minutes at guard. Enter Allen, who returned the same day Daniels prepared to go under the knife; the Celtics haven't missed a beat.
"Each injury made him hungrier," Pierce said. "When you get injured like that more than once, it's humbling. You're hungry to get back onto the court and you work so hard to get back out there. Tony understands what it takes.
"You grow up so fast when you go through the injuries he's been through. He understands what it takes to come back, because after each injury he comes back stronger."
Allen underwent offseason ankle surgery, but rushed back too soon and aggravated the injury in a preseason game against the New York Knicks. His return date kept sliding back. Initially, he was supposed to miss only the first two games of the season, then he targeted Nov. 15 as a return date. He finally made his debut on Dec. 8.
His minutes and production have escalated quickly. It almost looks like he's trying to make up for lost time. Allen admits he didn't think it would take this long to get back on the court, but he's making the most of it all.
At the end of a session with the media at Monday's practice, Allen was asked if he ever thought about how the Celtics could easily have given up on him throughout his multiple recoveries.
Said an emphatic Allen, "They coulda, shoulda, woulda -- but they didn't."
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.