With Garnett out, the Celtics' defense rests

Apr 15, 2009 |
With Garnett out, the Celtics' defense rests

Chris Bernucca covered the NBA for SportsTicker.

It was December 2003, and the Minnesota Timberwolves had just finished off the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, adding to the circus atmosphere surrounding Latrell Sprewell's heavily hyped return to New York.

Sam Cassell was holding court among about a half-dozen media members in the visitors' locker room when a wayward hand came over the heads of the semicircle and down on Cassell's bald head, producing an audible thwack.

Cassell had a stunned look on his face. The rest of us turned to where the hand came from, and it was a scowling Kevin Garnett, who was utterly enraged that his teammate had used his body wash without asking.

With an expletive-laden threat that had Cassell cowering, order had been restored among the Timberwolves. This was Garnett's team, and he wasn't going to allow any knucklehead behavior from anybody, on or off the court.

Garnett won the MVP that season, leading the Timberwolves to the Western Conference finals. With that same no-nonsense attitude, he won Defensive Player of the Year and led the Boston Celtics to their 17th NBA title last season.

Garnett's intensity has been well-documented and clearly has an impact on his teammates. But he is best when leading by example, and the Celtics haven't seen much of that lately. There's a chance Boston backers won't see it either in the playoffs.

Thursday morning, coach Doc Rivers told reporters there's strong possibility the All-Star forward will miss the entire postseason.

A knee injury has limited Garnett to 67 meaningless minutes over four games since mid-February. There have been almost daily updates on his condition, most recently that it will be up to him whether he takes the court when the playoffs begin this weekend.

The Chicago Bulls, who probably weren't thrilled to draw the Celtics in the first round, must be drooling at the mouth to take on the KG-less C's.

Before Garnett's injury, the Celtics were 44-12, allowing just 92.0 points per game. Since his injury, they are 17-8 and surrendering 97.1 points. Boston's rebounds per game have climbed from 42.8 to 44.6 per game, but that is a reflection of a decreased ability to manage the pace, leading to more possessions.

A better barometer is defensive rebounding percentage. The percentage of available defensive rebounds grabbed by the Celtics is .756, third in the league and a shade above the elite level of 75 percent. Without Garnett, that number drops into the 73 percent range, or right around the league norm.

The stats have been just as telling for bettors. The Green Guys are 34-23 against the spread with Garnett in the lineup and 8-15 without him. The trend is just as powerful for total players. The over is 16-7 in Boston games without the Big Ticket and 24-33-1.

According to John Hollinger's Performance Efficiency Rating, Garnett is 18th in the NBA at 21.34. The only other Celtic in the top 50 is defensive-minded Rajon Rondo, who is 34th at 19.01.

The Celtics are just 3-4 when they allow opponents to shoot 50 percent or better. Five of those games have taken place since Garnett's injury.

Don't forget how Garnett's offense impacts Boston's defense, either. The Celtics are much more deliberate and efficient with Garnett as the fulcrum of the offense. He shoots 53 percent from the field, forcing the opponent to frequently walk into their next set.
There have been some fringe benefits to Garnett's absence. It expedited the acquisition of reserve big man Mikki Moore. It forced Kendrick Perkins to man the middle by himself, which he did quite capably. It allowed forwards Leon Powe (12.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Glen Davis (12.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) to play big minutes and develop confidence.

Could the Celtics survive a series without Garnett? Probably. But if they really want to give their first-round foe a good thwack to the head, they will need their defensive and emotional leader.

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