Celtics fans and fantasy owners alike were left cringing, hoping their worst fears were not about to be realized when Kevin Garnett walked off the court gingerly in the middle of the Celtics game against the Pistons on December 29th. Well, I'm sure Charlie Villanueva was pleased.
A clean x-ray gave way to only the slightest bit of solace with the always fearful MRI still to come.
The organization finally breathed a sigh of relief when Garnett's MRI returned negative and the knee that KG has injured three times turned out completely uninvolved. A calf injury would only sideline Garnett a couple weeks.
My glass-half-full attitude led me to expect the worst. Flashbacks of the knee injury of two years earlier overwhelmed me. This is it, no KG, no championship. So goes for Rondo, Pierce, and Allen. Pieces of the puzzle that can simply not afford to be lost. But Garnett? Like the Lakers losing Kobe, the Heat losing LeBron, the Magic losing Howard; the unit can't survive without its heart.
KG's close-call forced me to ponder a couple in particular: Which big men could the Celtics afford to lose while still having championship potential? Similarly, which big men are a must-have for the Celtics to have a shot? Assuming Pierce and Allen stay healthy (fingers crossed), the interior is a necessity for the C's.
Last year's finals loss to the Lakers can be fully accredited to the loss of Kendrick Perkins. Perkins will tell you the same thing but assuming you can't rely on that, here's a fact: The Celtics were out-rebounded 23-8 on the offensive boards in game seven. Watch the fourth quarter and tell me that wasn't the difference in the game. Yes, I am still extremely bitter.
I went ahead and grouped the two big men that are deepest on the pecking order together. Erden and Harangody have two defined roles: 1) Fill in some scrub minutes for the big men on nights off and 2) Demonstrate signs of their future worth once the older generation of Celtics hit the golf course.
Erden was picking up some decent minutes for a little-known Turkish rookie, but his lack of physicality in the post seems to have Doc Rivers leaning towards limited time. Erden has also been dealing with a groin injury and a small case of the flu in recent games which doesn't bode well for him seeing much of the hardwood. Bench play is all about reliability.
Due to the injury to Garnett, Erden's tussles, and Shaq's always appropriate 20-25 minutes, Harangody has logged as much time in his last four games as he has all season long. Harangody's numbers are minimal, and his shooting has been mediocre for the few attempts he has posted. The best that be can said for the rookie is that he pushes himself on defense and plays with a natural discipline.
Both players are not likely to have a playoff impact unless the Celtics suffer an unheard of string of injuries, in which case the impact would be limited to one series at most.
Jermaine has proven to be the lesser of the two O'Neals, the Robin to Shaq's Batman. Jermaine has dealt with his share of injuries, as he has throughout his career. O'Neal's last seven years have been like Kevin Griffey Jr.'s in Cincinnati, missing half of the season or more four times.
Still, O'Neal brings an extra (extra, extra, extra) veteran presence to the team. He offsets Shaq's poor free-throw shooting if Doc Rivers wants to go possession-for-possession down the stretch. Jermaine seems to finally be playing with the fluidity that gives him the importance that the Celtics had hoped for. O'Neal seems to be getting his shot back and accompanied by a stretch of several blocks, the slightly younger O'Neal may be coming around.
O'Neal is a necessity while Garnett is out but will see a decline in time once The Big Ticket returns.
The Diesel has come with his own slew of nagging injuries, as anticipated. His play, however, has bordered on stellar. Playing the lowest minutes of his career (21.5), Shaq has managed to put up 10.2 points, grab 5.4 boards and add a block to boot. Career lows? Yes. But his 66.9 shooting percentage is a career high, so he is clearly maximizing his efficiency.
Shaq's already low minutes makes him less concerned about taking an extra foul here and there, and his fouls will be huge once Kendrick Perkins returns.
You merely have to take a glance at the big man to know that he can probably do a reasonable job clogging the lane. Shaq is playing the smartest basketball of his career and is still the same physical troublemaker he always was. His dedication to the team game (better late than never) is full-force claiming that he is now a “consultant rather than a CEO.”
If the refs don't dictate the game like they did on Christmas (well worth the fine), Shaq will be huge against teams like the Heat and Magic.
I deliberated Shaq versus “Baby Shaq” for quite some time and was eventually able to come up with a few concrete answers.
More spring off the bench – Once Perkins returns, Shaq and Davis will both assume a lesser (but not less important) role on the bench. Davis would be more mobile than Shaq regardless of age, but Shaq is no spring chicken, and Davis supplies more minutes and a greater degree of aggressiveness.
Shooting – Since entering the league, Davis has vastly improved his mid-range shot, making a home on the elbows. Shaq can't shoot, period. So I suppose this isn't much of a point. However, the two could complement each other off the bench as a physical interior twosome with two different styles of play.
Versatility – Davis has the inside-out game that Shaq doesn't. He has enough speed to chase down a ball and the willingness to spill his wide load all over the floor in pursuit of the rock. Davis is energetic, confident and animated (unimportant, but a bonus for annoying opposing fans).
Yes, the only player on the Celtics roster not to log minutes this year is the second-most important big man on the team.
Arguably one of the most undervalued players in the league last year, the fallout due to Perkins' absence in the NBA Finals stuck out like LaDainian Tomlinson's absence on the Chargers this season. Although Tomlinson had clearly lost some of his step, you can't undervalue a guy that knows how to do all the little things (like read blocking assignments).
Perkins stands at the core of Celtics rebounding. In just 27.6 minutes last year, Perkins averaged 10.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Like many of the the Celtics championship teams formed before him, Perkins is a contributor well beyond his numbers.
Perkins holds the interior down as good as anyone in the game, and if he fully recovers from his injury, he can still improve on it. He is strong, physical and passionate. While Garnett is fueled by his intensity, sometimes Perkins' intensity is what gets the best of him. Regardless, it helps keep him be relentless in the post.
Was there any doubt?
Garnett was and is the centerpiece that took the Celtics from a 24-58 team in 2006-07 to a 66-16 team in 2007-08, the best record since Bird's Celtics won the finals in '86.
Before the calf injury, Garnett was back to the KG of that same Celtics championship team. The spring is back in his legs, and he is now able to perform his signature pivots as well as always. A strained calf should not slow his stride, and the coaching staff will certainly ensure Garnett is primed before returning him to the lineup.
Garnett's plethora of skills is topped only by his heart. He brings cohesion, balance and the intensity needed to fuel his teammates through the grueling playoff months. Heck, the guy almost beat the Lakers in Minnesota with Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Wally Szczerbiak at his side. (Question: how many people can say they have the letters s,z,c and z together anywhere in their name? Players with last names like “Szczerbiak” and “Houshmandzadeh” should do right by the rest of us and, like Yao/Ichiro, simply have “Wally” or "T.J.” sewn to their jersey.)
Garnett gives the Celtics their pulse. He is the oil that makes the engine run. Without him, the Celtics are decent playoff team that have enough heart to contend. But championship? Forget about it.
The flow of the game often prevents too many “what ifs?” from entering my head, but I don't know if my heart can handle the scare of losing our pulse again. 2008-09 was more than enough punishment, right?