BOSTON (CBS) – The Boston Celtics are just seven short days away from kicking off the NBA season against the Miami Heat.

For the Celtics and their fans, the week-long wait can’t end soon enough.

The Celtics will once again be in the hunt for another championship, although they are rightfully taking their spot below the Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and a few others as in the preseason rankings for 2012-13 NBA Championship “favorites.”

It’s a spot they’re not only familiar with, but one they relish.

The Celtics’ preseason, although still just the preseason, was filled with mostly highs for a team going through a transition period this year. While the Celtics have been “too old” to compete for years now, Danny Ainge added reinforcements this offseason that will assure the Celtics will be in the conversation come May and June.

Read: Ray Allen Says Issues With Rondo “On Him”

For starters, the starters are back — most of them, at least. Ray Allen will be wearing a Miami Heat jersey next Tuesday, so the “new” new Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo will anchor this team — although it already has for the last two years. While Garnett and Pierce have already solidified themselves as leaders, this will be a big season for Rondo. Heading into his seventh NBA season, he’ll be called upon to step up both on the floor and in the locker room. Judging by his actions in training camp (having the whole team out to Los Angeles for a pre-preseason scrimmage), he’s ready to make that jump, and the Celtics are ready to follow his lead.

After those three, though, it sounds like Doc Rivers will have a rotating starting lineup. Courtney Lee will likely get the nod at the two-guard, but it appears Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger split time at power forward. It’s a great way for Rivers to keep both players hungry, and inject some youth into the Celtics’ starting five on any given night.

While Garnett looks like he’s back at last season’s form, both physically and mentally (however unbalanced the latter may be), Rivers will have to monitor his minutes throughout the regular season to keep him fresh for April, May and June. It’s always an adventure for the Celtics when Garnett is on the bench, so Rivers needs to find a rotation that works when Garnett isn’t on the floor.

But that’s where the new-look bench comes in to play.

Yes, the Celtics actually have a bench this year — and players willing to come off said bench. It will all start with Jason Terry. Plain and simple, Terry is going to give Boston the offensive spark the Celtics’ second unit has been starving for since … Ricky Davis? Eddie House? It’s been that long since the Celtics had an actual sixth man, and one that can score to boot. (That’s a surprising thought given this is the team that invented the role for Frank Ramsey back in the 1950s, and later made famous by John Havlicek.)

Photos: Celtics European Trip 2012

Either Sullinger or Bass will be a boost down low off the bench (although it’s hard not to love the thought of Sullinger in the starting five next to Garnett), but the most important player for the Boston bench this season will be Jeff Green. After missing all of last season, Green looks to be back with authority, leading the Celtics scoring this preseason and averaging 13.4 points over seven games. He’s looked great going up and down the court, something Rivers is hoping the bench will be doing a lot of this season. With Green’s versatility mixed with speedy players like Terry and now Leandro Barbosa, the Celtics’ second unit has a chance to make the opposition run in circles trying to keep up.

But the main issue with the Celtics, as it always is, is their health. Now at 36, can Garnett handle another full season, this time exclusively at center? How will Pierce’s knee hold up in his 15th season in the league? There is already some minor concern over Avery Bradley’s recovering shoulders, and he is still months away from a return. It will all depend on how long the depth Ainge worked so hard in building actually remains depth.

So no, the Celtics are not the odds-on favorites to win another NBA title, and haven’t been since they were defending their 2007-08 crown. But even though their two leaders in Garnett and Pierce are a year older, it looks like Rajon Rondo is ready to make that next step, and the Celtics have a deep enough bench to assure they’ll be in championship talks come summer time.

They may not be the favorites heading into this season, but this team loves it when the world is against them. It’s a battle they’ve always been ready to fight, and it all gets under way next week in Miami.

Follow Matthew Geagan on Twitter @MattyGWBZ

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