How Far Can the Celtics Go Without Garnett?

Tax day has come rolling around. So it’s perhaps unlikely to be thinking of Santa Claus right now. But that may be exactly what Celtics fans are doing. Boston may be thinking with no small amount of anguish about the team they had on Christmas Day, compared with the team they have today.

Paging back through the calendar, we note that Boston was a gaudy 27-2 coming into their Christmas Day confrontation with the Lakers.
Boston had just won a World Championship at the end of the previous season. It certainly looked as though their intensity might carry right through to another one.

But the Lakers won that day. Boston went on a mini slide. They recovered, and posted a highly respectable 62-20 record.
During the slide, questions began to come up about the Celtics. Had they burned themselves out? Were the Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett getting too old?

In some ways, Boston proved the doubters wrong. Rajan Rondo stepped up his game, Doc Rivers seemed to steady the ship. Even the midseason acquisition of Stephon Marbury looked harmless, if not positive. But that respectable record of Boston’s is second in the Eastern conference and third overall. That means that any hopes the Celtics have of winning the championship will mean winning games in Cleveland and in Los Angeles.

That was the thinking during the last few weeks of the season. It seemed as though the team had reconciled itself to sitting just behind the leaders, ready to pounce. Then, this week, the team announced devastating news. Kevin Garnett will in all likelihood miss the entire playoff run. There is no question that Garnett is the Celtics’ leader, on and off the court. His offensive production has certainly slipped since his younger, MVP-winning years in Minnesota. For his career, Garnett is averaging 20.2 points a game and 11.1 rebounds. This season, those numbers are down to 15.8 ppg. and 8.5 rpg.

Those are certainly respectable numbers. But they hardly tell the whole story or justify why Boston is paying the man $24 million this year. Where Garnett really shines is on defense. He won last year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. His skills have not diminished significantly this year. Garnett is a beast on defense. He blocks shots and defends in the post extremely well. He can guard the perimeter well for a big man. He talks constantly, and he knows exactly where to be.

It may be getting harder to remember, but Boston was not a particularly good defensive team before Garnett arrived.
Perhaps his greatest achievement has been taking two players not known for any particular commitment to defense and helping them commit to defense. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have been much better defenders since Garnett’s arrival. This kind of ruggedness has not seen since the Detroit “Bad Boys” of the late 80s and early 90s.
Then there is Garnett’s intensity. He is legendary for taking every play so seriously that it looks like it might cause him an ulcer. Boston now will have to manage without that intensity, and without Garnett’s skills.

Sure, he’ll be cheerleading from the bench. But it’s hard to imagine him stopping LeBron James that way. Garnett’s injury isn’t really a shocker. For a decade, he averaged 40 minutes of court time a game. The hard fact of life for NBA players is that knees have limited mileage.
No one knows for certain when that bodily odometer will go red. But the relentless pounding up and down the court seems to finally have taken its toll on Garnett. Now in his 13th year, Garnett injured his right knee on February 19th. He was out for the next 13 games.
It seemed like the team was being properly cautious in bringing him back slowly. Then he returned for four games, but he wasn’t the same player. He only played for 66 minutes over those four games. Then the Celtics shut him down again.

First it was for one game, then two. Now we are hearing that he might not even be ready for the beginning of next season.
So what does all of this mean for Boston’s playoff run? Their first-round opponent is the Chicago Bulls. They would have been considered an easy target earlier in the year. Both Boston and Chicago have changed since then significantly. Boston will be probably be starting Leon Powe in Garnett’s place. Powe has had some nice games this year. But he’s certainly no Garnett, especially on the defensive end. Chicago did some impressive midseason dealing. They ended up with the underrated John Salmons and Brad Miller. Both were acquired from Sacramento.

Along with the likely Rookie–of–the–Year candidate Derrick Rose, Chicago has gotten significantly better than the latter half of the year.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that these changes will mean a first-round exit for Boston. That’s particularly true since Boston does have home-court advantage. Assuming Boston makes it through Chicago, they are looking at a probable second-round matchup against Orlando.
Orlando is facing some injury concerns of its own.

Both Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkgolu are questionable for the first game. Still, it’s very hard to imagine Philly taking advantage of that.
Which means that Orlando and Boston will face each other in the second round. And this may well be where the Boston ride ends. They have home court advantage, but even so they have no answer for Dwight Howard.

Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe are decent big men. But Howard is the best in the game. Orlando seems to sometimes overlook feeding the ball to Howard in crunch time. If they can remember to do that, it seems quite possible they will end Boston’s season.

If they don’t, Boston will probably run into the Cleveland freight train in the conference finals. That’s where things get really rough. Cleveland has home court advantage and the likely MVP in LeBron James. The team seems poised for a trip to the Finals. That would end Boston’s season.

Along with it, they may well be ending Boston’s nice two-year run.
Boston will return again next year one year older, with three aging stars. How likely is it that they can turn back the clock for one more run?

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