The Boston Celtics' playoff success clearly hinges on the performance of two players: Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Both guys have been banged up of late, with Garnett missing 11 games mainly due to a bum ankle and Pierce missing a few for the same reason.
As a result of the nagging injuries to the future Hall of Famers, the Celtics' productivity as a team has suffered. With Garnett out of the lineup, Boston goes from being elite defensively to pedestrian, and Pierce's late-game scoring is sorely missed when he is not on the floor.
The question is, which of the two is more vital to the cause?
The answer is Garnett.
This is a man who ranked No. 1 in the entire NBA in regularized adjusted plus/minus at the All-Star break. His impact on the defensive end of the floor is so profound that it vaulted him over superstars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant in terms of overall importance. Pierce's occasional offensive dominance doesn't even begin to approach the significance of KG's prowess in stopping opponents.
Garnett is to the C's what Ray Lewis was to the Baltimore Ravens all of those years he lined up at middle linebacker for them. He is the leader. He is the one who barks commands and gives assignments. He is the one who is there to clean up any potential mess another player leaves. Without KG in the middle, the Celtics' defense crumbles.
In the 10 games Garnett had missed with the ankle injury prior to April 12, Boston allowed 103.4 points per 100 possessions. That was about three-and-a-half points above their season average. In KG's return against the Washington Wizards, the number dropped to 84.7.
That difference of nearly 20 points for one game is obviously a small sample size, but it is hardly insignificant.
During the 2012 postseason, Garnett was an absolute animal. Through Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he led all players with a staggering plus-164, higher than the likes of LeBron, Durant, etc.
With Pierce and Ray Allen both hurting, not to mention several other important players either playing hurt or having to sit due to injury, KG put Boston on his back and carried them through the playoffs. He was so dominant that you held your breath any time he went to the bench to get some rest.
If Garnett was the Celtics' most imperative piece last year, why wouldn't he be this time around?
We all remember how it went down. Pierce injured his knee in practice during the Celtics' first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks, and then he aggravated it in Game 4 of that series. The result? A sprained MCL and severely limited mobility for No. 34. That was when KG took matters into his own hands, basically single-handedly winning the deciding Game 6 of that series, demolishing the Philadelphia 76ers en route to a seven-game triumph and then laying it all out in nearly leading Boston to a colossal upset over the Miami Heat.
Yes, he was a year younger and he was healthier, but Garnett is a guy whose massive heart and basketball savvy seem to outweigh any possible physical limitations.
After all, he was still not 100 percent against the Wizards last Sunday, but he managed to make a huge difference. Let's not forget that Washington is a respectable 23-20 with John Wall in the lineup, so it's not as if the C's were playing a bunch of scrubs.
This isn't to downplay Pierce's importance to the Celtics. He is unquestionably a crucial part of everything they do, and without his services, Boston wouldn't go anywhere. However, a good big man will always be more valuable. Look no further than Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers teams to witness that. As great as Bryant was (and still is), O'Neal was the main cog in winning those three consecutive championships.
The Celtics are going to need to lean heavily on Garnett. He is their only rim protector and is also their sole source of low-post offense.
If Pierce has an off night, Jeff Green can pick up the slack. If KG isn't right during a particular game, however, then Boston is in trouble. As well as guys like Brandon Bass and Shavlik Randolph have been playing, neither possesses the skill set nor the basketball intelligence to compensate for the absence of Garnett.
With Rajon Rondo out, even more of an onus falls on Garnett's shoulders to produce throughout the postseason. Something tells me he'll be ready.