OK, Celtics fans, we've been trying to talk ourselves out of it for about three weeks now. We kept saying it was all going to be fine.
But it's officially time to start worrying.
Kevin Garnett missed Friday night's game against the Atlanta Hawks, the first time he's sat out since returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for almost a month.
His absence came just one game after a barely-there appearance against the Orlando Magic, when Garnett looked hampered while turning in his worst effort since bouncing back.
His absence didn't stop the Celtics from winning Friday, thanks in large part to a monster night from Glen "Big Baby" Davis. But if it lingers, there's no chance the Celtics defend their championship.
I repeat: No chance.
The Celtics did their best to keep the ship righted with Garnett out, and they had their peaks, but the valleys were far more telling. Included in the string of games without the Big Ticket were narrow losses to Orlando and San Antonio and a defeat against the Clippers (the CLIPPERS!) as the C's lost any hope of overtaking Cleveland for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Then KG came back. And even though he was playing less than 20 minutes and still hasn't taken the floor in the fourth period, the difference was dramatic and immediate.
The offense moved more fluidly. Suddenly, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen didn't have to work quite as hard to get open looks.
But the real difference was at the other end of the floor. Garnett's energy is infectious, and the Celtics immediately regained their defensive swagger.
They rattled off three straight wins, including a triumph on the Spurs' home floor in which Tim Duncan and his fundamental buddies were held to 77 points. The Celts held the Clippers to the same point total a few days later in another victory.
But numbers don't go Garnett's importance enough justice. The Celtics are a dominant, championship team with him in the lineup. They are damn good without him, but they become very, very beatable.
They call Dwight Howard "Superman" because of his high-wire acts and explosiveness, but ask anyone in Boston and they'll tell you who the real superhero is.
The emotional lift upon his return was stunning. Even the bench seemed to have more energy with Garnett on the floor.
He is the definition of a "presence," a player who makes his team better simply by stepping on the floor and hustling. The spring in everyone's step was tangible the minute KG put the green-and-white back on.
Need more evidence? Watch the game tape of the last two minutes against Orlando on Wednesday. With KG out and the Celtics down a few points, the last three possessions turned into the "Let's watch Paul Pierce" show.
Three straight times the Celtics gave Pierce the ball at the top of the key while the rest of the team raced to the four corners...and stood there.
24 seconds. No motion.
And no emotion.
Pierce tried to break down the defense, and even made one critical shot, but in the end the offensive stagnance led to Dwight Howard altering his final attempt.
The Celtics came up short in a game that could ultimately end up costing them the No. 2 seed, a near-impossible situation last month before Garnett went down.
With Garnett in the game, the Celtics run a fluid inside-outside attack. The ball goes in, and Garnett either makes a move and scores or kicks it out to Pierce or Allen for a jumper or to Rajon Rondo to create.
There are options. There is motion. There's always a chance to score.
But KG hasn't even played more than 18 minutes since coming back. He looked great in his first few games coming back, scoring in double figures three times despite the limited minutes, but against Orlando he looked like Raef Lafrentz. He looked so bad, the Celtics didn't even dress him against Atlanta two days later.
It's panic time. There are fewer than 10 games remaining in the regular season, and what at first appeared to be a two-week injury has stretched longer than a month and shows no signs of getting better.
The reality appears that even if Garnett is playing significant minutes in the playoffs, he'll be doing so through gritted teeth.
My teeth are gritted, too. The Celtics have withstood a remarkable amount of injuries in the latter half of the season. Every starter except for Pierce and Perkins has missed at least one game, and the bench has been depleted with Tony Allen, Leon Powe, Davis and Brian Scalabrine all missing significant time at one stretch or another.
Things always appears to come out OK. But if Garnett is down for the postseason, so is Boston.
There was a game earlier this season when the Timberwolves came to Boston. Al Jefferson, the key player sent to Minnesota in the KG deal, was superb, proving once again that he has already become an elite big man.
I found myself thinking about Jefferson and the likelihood that he'll have a very good career for another 10 years. I wondered, had the Celtics made the Ray Allen trade at the All-Star break last season and kept Jefferson, would they still have won the title?
Absolutely not. Though Jefferson is more talented (skill-wise) than Garnett at this stage of their respective careers, Garnett brought more than reliability and rebounds to the Boston lineup. He brought an attitude.
He changed a culture. He made winning a mentality the minute he stepped inside the Boston locker room. The second he arrived, the Celtics were a different club. To say it's all because of him is not a stretch.
So the idea of a hobbling Garnett in the playoffs is more than a little frightening. When whole, I think the Celtics mop the floor with Orlando in a series that goes no more than five games.
If the roster is together, a potential Eastern Conference Finals match-up with Cleveland could be epic. But without Garnett, who knows if the Celtics even get past Orlando?
I am willing to accept the fact that Garnett isn't going to be 100 percent. He's not going to be throwing down alley-oop dunks. But he doesn't have to.
All he has to do is replicate the player he was early last week, only with 35 minutes on the floor instead of 15. That alone would be enough to make the Celtics a contender again.
Until last night, I was confident that would happen. But coupled with Wednesday's no-show against Orlando, Friday's DNP has me officially chewing on my fingernails.
The playoffs are only weeks away, but the Celtics are already knee deep in a game of sudden death.
And if Friday is any indication, it's not going to end with another banner in the rafters.
The Celtics have about three weeks to alter that picture. And nobody is going to question Garnett's determination. If neither of his legs has been amputated, he'll be suiting up for the playoffs.
I just hope he's wearing his cape and not playing the part of mild-mannered reporter.
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