The Loss of a Leader: Kevin Garnett's True Importance to the Boston Celtics
You know a player or a moment is important when NBA Films uses it in a montage. Since he entered the league in 1995, Kevin Garnett has supplied the NBA marketing gurus with an endless supply of chest-banging, heaven-pointing, fierce-glaring footage.
Those borderline scary eyes and his wrapped fingers clenched in fists are so familiar that they're probably a keyboard shortcut on the video editing software at ESPN.
It's this intensity that Garnett brought to Boston last year. It's this intensity that put Paul Pierce and company over the top; that focused Rajon Rondo into becoming a star; that molded Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, and Leon Powe into reliable role players.
Garnett's refusal to accept failure, something he had dealt with for so many years in Minnesota, pushed the 2007-08 Celtics to the title.
This leadership and intensity is nearly impossible to replace. So when Garnett went down in February with a knee injury, most Celtics fans were worried.
But then Boston went on to win 18 of their final 27 and all of a sudden it was ok that Garnett was out. He'll be back for the playoffs everyone said. It's great that he's getting all of this rest was another phrase heard amongst Boston supporters.
Then came the news that Garnett would most likely miss the playoffs. Teammates, coaches, executives and fans alike said all of the right things. What's to worry about right? They've still got Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rondo.
Perkins, Davis, and Powe played great down the stretch in Garnett's absence. The Boston crowd makes it nearly impossible for anyone to win in the new Garden.
But in one afternoon, a 20 year old, rookie point guard, pulled the facade down. Derrick Rose's 36 points coupled with Chicago's front court demolition of Boston's Garnett Replacement Crew took the series out of the Garden and moved into Chicago's west side. Into a building with a couple of banners over the court won by some guy named Jordan.
What's worse for the Celtics, is that their remaining Big Two let them down. Allen couldn't have played worse, going 1-12 from the field while also allowing Ben Gordon to score 20 points. Pierce missed a free throw with two seconds left that would have won the game for Boston. With Garnett on the court, that does not happen.
The intensity that Boston used to roll over the Lakers in last year's NBA Finals was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was Rose, Noah and Tyrus Thomas who had the swagger of defending champions.
So where do the Celtics go from here? Rondo was the only Celtic player to have a standout day, scoring 29 points to go along with nine rebounds and seven assists. In the post game press conference, the normally reserved Rivers bristled when asked about his injured (and absent) superstar.
The series in not about Garnett, Rivers said, but about the 10 guys on the court and "which set of five is bringing the most juice."
It is a mistake for Rivers to avoid the ten thousand pound gorilla in the room. This series is about Garnett's absence whether he likes it or not. Rivers should be embracing the loss of his leader, using it as inspiration.
It's not often that a defending champion can play the "No One Believed In Us" card. Of course Rivers wants to focus on the team on the court. But he cannot ignore the void created by Garnett's injury.
This could be a chance to cement Rondo as the leader of the team (something he is going to have to become if the Celtics are going to remain successful). It's a chance for Pierce and Allen to prove they are capable of carrying a team to a title.
You do not just replace a Kevin Garnett. The process has to start with Pierce, Allen and Rondo. It has to be a collective effort; a team banding together in the face of adversity. If they do not, Boston fans may not get to see their team again after game two.
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