With three regular season games left, the Boston Celtics continue to creep toward the .500 mark. After dropping a staggering 10 of their last 14 games, and continuing to battle injuries, they desperately need to focus on resolving their many problems.
The key to turning things around, and achieving success in the playoffs, lies with Kevin Garnett. Make no mistake, Paul Pierce will continue to drive this team and maintain clutch execution. But nobody means more than KG when it comes to curing Boston's ills.
Garnett’s scoring ability serves as the most obvious factor Boston must regain on a regular basis. When he takes quality shots for the majority of the game, good things happen for the team in green.
Since January 1, the Celtics are 16-4 when Garnett shoots at least 50 percent from the floor.
In fact, in the 35 wins he has appeared in this season, he has maintained a .536 field goal percentage. Compare that to his .454 rate in the 32 losses he has played in, and it’s pretty obvious Boston needs KG to make an impact offensively.
Pierce can still score with the best of the NBA, and Jeff Green has dazzled, but they cannot provide Garnett’s low-post efficiency. Expect his playoff numbers to dramatically outshine his 14.4 regular-season scoring average.
When Rajon Rondo suffered a torn ACL in January, and Jared Sullinger then underwent season-ending back surgery, Garnett’s improved efforts on the glass served as an integral part of Boston’s survival (or rather, dominance).
The Celts won 14 of 18 games after Rondo’s injury, a span in which KG grabbed 8.9 boards per contest.
The “Big Ticket” averages 8.1 rebounds in wins, and 7.4 in losses. He remains the only true rebounding big man and low-post presence in the starting five.
His 9.4 rebounds per 36 minutes have really only been aided by Chris Wilcox (7.7) and the fully-emerged Shavlik Randolph (13.5). But per-36 numbers can be deceiving—consider the fact that Wilcox and Randolph combine for an average of 6.2 fouls per 36 minutes.
Don’t expect to find a low-post savior from the bench this postseason, especially from players struggling to stay out of foul trouble in short minutes. Garnett could be on his own for the most part, which could be a tall order against the Indiana Pacers, the top rebounding squad in the league.
But the former MVP has taken on tall orders in the past. He could very easily repeat history, and give playoff opponents fits on the glass once again.
The Celtics continue to suffer from poor spacing, on both sides of the floor. This held true in the thumping the New York Knicks delivered twice in five days (March 26: 100-85; March 31: 108-89), and in the Miami Heat’s April 12 victory (sparked by a 13-point first-half comeback).
Defensive spacing has been an inside-outside problem. Help defenders often fail to slide over and meet penetrating wing players like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James at the rim. KG’s absence exposes Boston’s low-post issues, primarily size, leadership and instinct.
When help does arrive, Boston’s guards collapse or fall out of position, leaving three-point shooters wide open on kick-outs or extra swing passes. They cannot afford to hold their positions like they do when Garnett mans the interior.
Playoff teams capitalize on such deficiencies. Anthony and J.R. Smith helped New York hit a staggering 22-of-56 from deep in their last two contests. Then Miami absolutely lit up the C’s, going 12-of-23 with four players accounting for three bombs each.
These games are not flukes. As ESPN’s Chris Forsberg recently pointed out, Boston’s defensive rating has been atrocious without Garnett. In the eight games he missed due to ankle inflammation and bone spurs, they allowed 103.4 points per 100 possessions.
That’s over three points more than their rest-of-season average. When he returned against the Washington Wizards on Sunday, April 7, he contributed to a much-improved 84.7 defensive rating in his 24 effective minutes of play. That’s a difference of 18.7 points, for those keeping score at home.
Similarly, everything seems to flow better on the offensive end with No. 5 in the middle.
The Celtics forced a lot of isolation drives in the Miami loss, and their passing game never established chemistry after the first quarter. They lacked confidence, direction and most importantly, spacing.
Time for a silver lining: it’s been said before, but Jeff Green’s slashing drives to the hoop continue to impress, especially when he dunks in Chris Andersen’s face twice in a matter of minutes, and three times total.
Jason Terry recently called Green the “x-factor” for the Celtics. Looking at his continued emergence this season, that seems like a hard statement to dispute. Here's what "Jet" wrote in his diary on ESPN Boston:
He's been very aggressive and assertive. He is playing with a lot more confidence than earlier in the season, which was to be expected. We are going to need him. How he goes is probably how we're going to end up going in these playoffs.
But Green’s game has yet to reach the level of consistency needed to consider him a “go-to guy.” He can be a very good playoff performer without Pierce and Garnett, but he has a much better shot at greatness with the two future Hall of Famers.
As previously mentioned, the Celtics generally win when KG shoots well. But they also attain heightened success just by putting him on the court to spread the floor. His customary turn-around jumpers, low-post vision and crisp passing make him a supreme offensive threat. But his unmatched hustle, intelligence and leadership make him one of the scariest dudes in the Eastern Conference.
And when it matters the most, he still plays like one of the top five defensive power forward/centers in the league. If KG can regain strength by the postseason, and get to at least 70-80 percent, no opponent will want to face him in a best-of-seven series.
Then there’s the fire he brings to the table. The regular-season version of KG already looks like a wild animal. But in the postseason, he kicks everything into overdrive: the trash talking, the obscenities (explicit content) and the “ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE”-like randomness that Boston has come to love from the veteran.
Simply put, he cares about nothing more than two things this time of year: his team, and his team winning.
And his passion rubs off on the rest of the squad. He pumps guys up, cheering them on during momentum swings and calling them out during lulls. He unquestionably serves as the emotional leader of the Celtics.
"I love playing with Kevin, man," Avery Bradley told reporters after the Wizards game. “[His] presence on the floor, his intensity...he makes everything easier on everybody. He talks the whole game. I love playing with him."
Garnett continually shows humility, backing Pierce as the real leader. He said earlier in the year that the team plays in “Truth’s house,” and that they cannot succeed without him.
"He’s the original Celtic,” Garnett said in early February. “We go how he goes…so we have all the trust in the world in him."
But Pierce can only provide the pulse if paired with the team’s heart and soul. KG’s the key—and Boston will not unlock the door to another Eastern Conference Finals without him.
All statistics compiled using NBA.com, ESPN.com, and Basketball-Reference.com.