- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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In the 2012 playoffs, the Celtics outscored their opponents by nearly nine points per 48 minutes when Kevin Garnett was on the floor. When he was on the bench, the Celtics were outscored by an astonishing 23.8 points per game.
Yes, the Big Ticket still makes a big difference.
Entering his 18th NBA season, Garnett's presence again looms large for the 2012-13 Celtics. He will again be called upon to anchor the defense, to be an outlet for Rajon Rondo's kickout passes, and to hold one and all accountable at both ends of the floor with his ear-singeing comments.
Rondo has been designated the team's leader by the general manager, coach and players. He's the point guard. He controls the ball. He runs the offense.
But the 36-year-old Garnett holds it all together and, in many ways, is equally essential to the team's success, if not more so. The Celtics of the Garnett-Pierce-Rondo era (sorry, Ray) have won with defense, and no one plays it any better than Garnett.
"He can dominate a game with his defense,'' said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach with the Celtics from 2007 to 2010. "How many players can do that? It's not just the athletic gifts of the length, the quickness, the intensity, but also his intelligence. He can read and see things as they're developing. He's the one who's ahead of everyone else."
The dilemma facing Celtics coach Doc Rivers as the season unfolds will be the same as it was last season: how to best utilize Garnett while keeping an eye on his minutes. Rivers religiously stuck to his plan in 2011-12, pulling Garnett at five-minute intervals in the first and third quarters.
Last season, Garnett averaged 31 minutes a game while appearing in 60 of the team's 66 games. (He has not played a wire-to-wire season since 2004-05.) That was slightly less than the 31.2 minutes he averaged in 2010-11, which ended three straight years of reduced minutes for Garnett. His first year in Boston, 2007-08, he averaged 32.8 minutes a game.
The temptation, of course, is to overuse Garnett because the Celtics are so much better when he's on the floor. ESPN Stats & Information uses a formula to rate players on their defensive value based on opponents' points per 100 possessions. A point differential of two to three points can be the difference between an average defense and a great defense, according to the formula.
Last season, when Garnett was on the floor, Celtics opponents averaged 98.7 points per 100 possessions. When he was off the floor, the number increased to 100.4 points a game, a difference of 1.7 points. Two seasons ago, the difference was 6.4 points.
"What makes him so special,'' Thibodeau said, "is his ability to communicate on the floor as well as his ability to guard all five positions. You can never lose sight of the way he sees the game. He plays to a team's strengths and covers up a team's weaknesses. That's what smart players do."
Thibodeau also noted that Garnett's unselfishness allows Rondo to be Rondo on the offensive end.
"Rajon is a great player and can be very disruptive defensively. But Kevin has his back,'' Thibodeau said. "On offense, Rondo does a lot of penetrating. But it's Kevin's willingness to get back that allows him to do that. He plays like a guard, protecting the basket. That allows Rajon to play on the boards or pick up his ball pressure."
So how best to manage the minutes of a player whose legendary intensity is such that it carries over from games to practices and weight-room sessions? Ideally, Rivers would like to do what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has done with Tim Duncan over the past five years. Garnett and Duncan, both future Hall of Famers, were born a month apart in 1976. But Garnett entered the NBA two years earlier and has logged more than 6,000 minutes more than Duncan, the equivalent of three seasons.
In the Spurs' last title year, 2006-07, Duncan averaged 34.7 minutes a game. His minutes have gone down every year since then, to 28.1 last season, when the Spurs matched Thibodeau's Bulls for the NBA's best record at 50-16.
The Spurs of the past few years, however, have not been the crackerjack defensive team that was the trademark of their championship units.
Rivers doesn't want that to happen to the Celtics. After Boston's exhibition finale Sunday against the 76ers, Rivers said, simply, "I think we still will have to be a better defensive team consistently to be a great team." The potential is there, he admitted. "If we do grow in all the different ways we can play, everyone kind of gets it, I think we can be very, very good,'' Rivers said.
The coach has plenty of options when he elects to rest Garnett. Last season, he basically had one: callow rookie Greg Stiemsma. This year, he can go with Jared Sullinger or Jeff Green if the team wants to play small and Garnett is playing the power forward position. Rivers also can turn to Darko Milicic, Jason Collins or Chris Wilcox if Garnett starts the game as a center, which he did last season when the Celtics were at their best.
Coaches love options almost as much as they love practice. But they love impact players even more. Rivers has had one for the past five years in Garnett, and the coach is going to do everything he can to ensure that run continues.
Even at age 36, Kevin Garnett's presence looms large for the 2012-13 Boston Celtics.