There are many explanations for why the Boston Celtics have played such exceptional basketball since Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL, and their defense's ability to crush any offense's confidence tops the list. As usual it all starts with Kevin Garnett, one of the most irreplaceable players in NBA history.
Despite his grizzled age and the incessant trade rumors kicked around every 12 hours, Garnett remains one of the most complete centers in the NBA. With the Celtics, he's now embedded in year six of what most figured to be a three- or four-year experiment, still positively impacting his team each and every minute he's on the court.
In their last six games, the Celtics have been dominant with Garnett on the court, allowing 88.0 points per 100 possessions and scoring 110.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats. Those two figures, if extended throughout an entire season, would give Boston both the best offense and best defense in basketball.
When he comes off the floor, Boston's offense nosedives to a well below average 99.6 points per 100 possessions, and the defense basically implodes, allowing 102.6 points per 100 possessions. The point differential indicates that Boston goes from an unstoppable two-way juggernaut to an impotent offensive club that boasts a borderline top-10 defense.
In February, whenever Garnett goes to the bench, opposing offenses have enjoyed relatively smooth operation against the Celtics. They make 41.2 field goals per 48 minutes (the highest figure for any individual on the Celtics), make—and attempt—more three-pointers than average (while being six percent more accurate), and attempt five more free-throws, according to NBA.com/Stats. With Garnett on the court, opponents average 18.6 turnovers per 48 minutes. When he sits, that number drops to 12.3. An insane difference.
Garnett’s smart, always using his brain and experience instead of relying on those advantageously long limbs to make a play. He’s consistently in the correct position, even when he finds himself in uncomfortable waters—on the perimeter, against a speedy guard, for example. He routinely forces right-handed players left and left-handed players right, always knowing what’s behind him and where the ball should be funneled.
Garnett's technique is virtually flawless: He gets low, flaps his wings, shuffles his feet and either forces a jumper or a difficult drive into the teeth of Boston's defense. Whenever on the ball—or sometimes, more notably, in the moments right before the ball is headed in his direction—he's a master at making his man feel edgy. He pokes and prods, sticks his knee where the sun don't shine. Anything to make his opponent think less about making the right play, and more about how to make Garnett stop. It's brilliant.
Garnett's pick-and-roll defense has been typically effective throughout the year, but this season his general strategy has differed from the past. On high pick-and-rolls he used to hedge, jumping out and slowing down the point guard's progress. (Throughout his Celtics tenure, Garnett has been one of the two or three best big-man pick-and-roll defenders deploying this strategy.)
This season Garnett has sagged back to contain the ball-handler, a strategy popular with most big men throughout the league. What separates Garnett from most of them is he's still quick and smart enough not to drop too low, which would give the point guard a wide open jumper or space to penetrate. Instead, more often than not he forces the ball back to the rolling man then slides a few steps across the lane to recover.
Oftentimes, opposing offenses will opt to set screens with someone besides Garnett's man—such as Brandon Bass or Jared Sullinger, before his season ended—in an attempt to take him out of the play. Boston responds to this by trapping the ball-handler, then placing responsibility for the rolling man squarely on Garnett's shoulders. He's like a prickly safety net.
There's no question Garnett is the backbone, heart and soul of Boston's defense. In any situation, whether it be in the post, on the perimeter, or guarding a pick-and-roll, he's as good as it gets. Despite some strategic shifts, with Garnett on the court the Celtics are a feared basketball team that commands respect. As long as he stays in Boston, their reputation as an elite defensive squad will remain true.