Dear Celtics, Jeff Green's Your Best Shot to Beat the Knicks, Not Kevin Garnett
Dear Boston Celtics,
The "KG Sucks" chants that echo throughout Madison Square Garden are really a sign of respect. New York and the rest of the NBA hates him because he's accomplished so much. His bout with Carmelo Anthony and cereal-related insults, among other things, are considered detestable, but Garnett is despised because he's so good.
But Garnett is no longer "so good" that he deserves to be universally abhorred by every city he doesn't play for. Those continued choruses of boos, jeers and chants are making him into something he's not–Boston's last hope.
Before I find myself drowning in hate mail, let it be known that I love Garnett. I also hate him. Everything he has done to the Knicks over the last five-plus years has been agonizing. He was contending for a championship while New York was a laughing stock. And for the amount of success that came at the Knicks' expense, I despise him.
But only because I love him. The intensity he still plays with would be unprecedented if we hadn't already watched him for almost two decades. His various on-court scandals are aspersions I could do without, but I still respect him. Along with most opposing fans, I recognize a living legend when I see one.
I also acknowledge that Garnett still has the potential to have a profound impact on the Celtics, especially on defense. Boston's defense was nine points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor during the regular season and the Celtics faithful would tell you they can't guard the pick-and-roll without him.
Garnett is still good. Great, even. But what he can do is no longer enough to carry the Celtics. Not only is he playing injured, he's more susceptible to getting injured.
We knew this, though. The Celtics are Rajon Rondo's team. The torch was passed after last year's playoff expedition. When Rondo got injured, someone else needed to be looked to for guidance. Garnett was that someone. And Paul Pierce. Boston's fate once again rested in their aging hands.
For some time, it should have. They're the ones who have the championship ring and leadership experience. They're future Hall of Famers. They're Pierce and Garnett, two all-time greats.
They're also not enough. Sans Rondo, the torch needed to be handed off once again. It never was. But it still can be. Now is as good a time as any. And Green as viable an option as the Celtics have.
In the first part of the season, he wasn't ready. Leading into the All-Star break he was averaging just 10.3 points and 3.3 rebounds on 44.3 percent shooting. There were traces of the player he was supposed to be, but they were just that—flashes. Dominant performances proved fleeting and his ceiling seemed on the verge of being tapered to meet his (disappointing) level of play.
Since the break, Green has been demonstrative on both ends of the floor. He closed out the regular season averaging 17.3 points, five rebounds and 1.1 blocks on 49.3 percent shooting. He shot a 43.9 percent clip from downtown as well.
This, admittedly, is less about the numbers. I could pull metrics that tear Green apart (Boston's offensive and defensive efficiency have been better without him on the floor in the playoffs thus far) if you asked me to. And the numbers I'm using here are just a means to show his growth as a player, to prove that he's able to fulfill a greater purpose.
The Celtics just have to let him loose.
This is more an emotional battle than anything. To admit that Green needs to be "The Man" is difficult. Especially if it means acknowledging Garnett (and Pierce) need to take a backseat. And especially when you realize how inconsistent Green still is.
His Game 1 performance (save for six turnovers and disappearing in the second half) was admirable. He exploded in the first half and the Celtics took a four-point lead into the locker room. He struggled to find his touch in the final two quarters and his team struggled to get him the ball. And they lost.
Green's Game 2 display bordered on regrettable. But so did Garnett's. He snagged 11 rebounds and blocked two shots in just 24 minutes, but battled foul trouble for a majority of the game. It was when he was on the bench in the second quarter that the Celtics built up a six-point advantage to take into halftime.
Was the loss Garnett's fault? Partially. Staying out of foul trouble would have been huge, but again, Boston built a lead in the first half without him. When he came out in the third, the Celtics already appeared beaten, and ultimately collapsed, prompting Rivers to send him back in with four fouls.
The point of my ramblings? Neither of Boston's losses are "on" Garnett. To some extent they are, just not entirely. They're on everyone. Green included.
What we have seen is a mortal Garnett, someone who can be taken out of the game by injuries or goaded into foul trouble. The intensity and impassioned effort is still there and the Celtics still need him. But they need to rely on Green more.
Garnett is hurt, he's injured and, most importantly, he's the focal point of New York's game plan. Limiting his impact on offense and mitigating his effectiveness on defense are things the Knicks have tried to do. And they've been able to do them. Which is troubling.
The Garnett the Celtics know wouldn't be taken out of the game for long stretches like he has been. But, and I can't say this enough, this isn't the Garnett we've all come to appreciate. Injuries and age are limitations he isn't immune to any longer. He's not capable of being who we want him to be.
So there's Green. Far from an afterthought, but hardly commanding the defensive attention he should. The Knicks have freely played off him on defense, leaving him wide open behind the arc. They've also allowed him to have his way in transition (when he's there).
They've underestimated him in favor of Garnett (and Pierce). We all have. Perhaps for fear of admitting that the Celtics are going to need to blow their dynamic straight to hell after this season, or maybe just because we're stubborn (people outside of Beantown included). Or both.
Whatever the reason, Green isn't being counted on as much as he should. He's played extensive minutes and has been great. And bad. He's still been inconsistent. The Celtics need to ride those inconsistencies, though.
Boston probably (I hate that word) won't upset New York. The Celtics probably won't make it past the first round or last any more than five or six games. That doesn't mean they can't try to. They don't have to stay the course. The one their following has been manipulated and mangled for quite some time. They're not married to it. And rightfully so.
Where has it gotten them? This teetering game plan where the Celtics depend too heavily on Garnett, Pierce or no one at all, where has it put them?
Two losses away from elimination, in a near helpless position. And I really mean that. Boston's second-half play has been horrific in their first two playoff games. From offensive stagnancy to (a few) defensive lapses, the Celtics haven't played up to snuff. If they had, they would have won Game 1. True story.
So let's forget everything we know, and everything we've come to believe. This isn't just about winning the series anymore. It's about preserving what's left of the season, however many games that may be. It's about protecting the sanctity of the Celtics' name, about representing the city of Boston the best they can and about accepting times have changed, so the team's dynamic must too.
And hell yeah, it's also about winning. As much as the Celtics can.
Which player must the Celtics rely on most to contend with the Knicks for the rest of the series?
The New Yorker in me wants to see them go down in four. I can't help it. I hate them. But I also love them (Bill Simmons would be proud). The basketball fan and professional in me, the same one that has created a not-so-secret soft spot for one of the most storied franchises in the NBA wants to see them fight better than they are now.
To do that, the Celtics have to entrust their immediate future in Green. They still need Garnett and Pierce, but they need Green to be responsible for more than both of them. They need him to do more than both.
That's how the Celtics have to battle—through Green. Even if they don't believe he can give anything else, they have to demand more. And then see where he takes them.
Wherever that may be.
Someone (and anyone) who wants to see the Celtics continue to fight.
*All stats for this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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