It's Still Too Early for Boston Celtics Fans to Slam the Panic Button
Things are far from perfect in the Boston Celtics' world lately.
Although they managed to outlast the Detroit Pistons, 98-93, on Wednesday night, they nearly relinquished all of an 18-point lead in the second half.
Even with the victory, the stumbling Celtics are just 3-7 in their last 10 games. Thanks to a top-heavy Eastern Conference, Boston managed to clinch its sixth straight postseason berth.
As far as the potential for playoff noise goes, though, it's been impossible to hear above the rising alarm sirens ringing out throughout the city.
Most of the cause for concern has stemmed from the absence of veteran big man Kevin Garnett, who missed his seventh straight game with inflammation in his left ankle.
Rivers expressed optimism about Garnett's return before the game but stopped short of offering a definitive timetable.
The problem for the Celtics isn't just that Garnett isn't on the floor, but the fact that he's taken the team's defensive effort with him.
Although Boston held Detroit below the century mark on Wednesday, it was just the fourth time in its last 10 games that it had done so. Jeff Green and Brandon Bass have replaced his offense in the frontcourt well enough (they combined for 51 points in the win), but neither can imitate Garnett's intimidating presence at the rim.
But coach Doc Rivers' team has made a living off of doing two things better than most franchises: responding to adversity and outperforming its playoff seed.
Perhaps Garnett's continued absences would carry a more ominous tone had the franchise not already weathered so many injury storms this season.
Point guard Rajon Rondo's torn ACL had the potential to derail this season; it didn't. Having rookie Jared Sullinger undergo season-ending back surgery was thought to be a crushing blow; it wasn't.
Granted, the Celtics may have had better alternatives to step in for guys like Rondo and Sullinger. No one on the roster can match Garnett's fiery intensity, let alone provide the same shot-blocking presence.
But replacing a superstar talent requires so much more than simply finding that player's closest clone to fill his vacated minutes. It takes the collective effort of the team to compensate for its loss, tasks each player with elevating his own performance in the same way that the Celtics did in their 100-98 double-overtime win over the Miami Heat in the wake of Rondo's injury.
And there's certainly been a silver lining to Garnett's departure.
Green has been one of the main benefactors of Garnett's vacated minutes. And he's done nothing but build his claim as one of the league's budding stars.
Over his past seven games, he's averaging more than 21 points, six rebounds and 3.5 assists (via NBA.com). He's shot 53.3 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from the perimeter during this stretch.
It's possible Green could have made equal strides with Garnett on the floor. They don't share a position after all. But he's averaging nearly 40 minutes a night in his last seven games, after logging just over 26 per game in his first 68 games of the year.
Now that the Celtics have officially punched their playoff ticket, the focus turns to their ability to become a factor in the Eastern Conference.
It's far from an ideal playoff spot, but it doesn't guarantee them a swift exit either. The Celtics were the fourth seed in 2012 and fell one game shy of an NBA Finals appearance. Two years before that, they made an NBA Finals run out of that same position.
The Celtics have dropped three of their four games to their likely first-round opponent, the second-seeded New York Knicks but have won both of their matchups with the third-seeded Indiana Pacers, a team likely to be waiting for them if they can make it out of the first round.
New York is playing the best basketball of any team in the league (10 straight wins), but its biggest contributors (Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton) don't have the same successful playoff experience to draw back on as the Celtics core.
Where will the Celtics playoff run end?
It will be a massive challenge to make it past the Knicks, but the Celtics pack a mighty punch for a No. 7 seed.
There may also be a certain motivation for this current group to maximize its potential this postseason. There's a chance it could be their final run together.
Boston flirted with the idea of moving both Garnett and Paul Pierce at the trade deadline and could revisit those trade talks this summer. Pierce will become an even hotter commodity given that he has just one year remaining on his deal and could be a desirable asset with his expiring $15.3 million deal for any team looking ahead to a loaded 2014 free-agent class.
But those are discussions best to be had when this current run is over.
And given this team's past success in similar situations, it's anyone's guess as to when that day will come.
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