Commentary

Kevin Garnett gives Celtics chance

Veteran's presence on defense, in locker room makes huge difference

Updated: April 19, 2013, 1:37 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

On the final day of March, after his team had endured a 19-point loss to the New York Knicks -- the second lopsided defeat to their rival in a five-day span -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was asked if he was leery about the prospects of a Boston-New York playoff series.

"If Kevin doesn't play," Rivers answered.

Yes, everything is different for the Celtics when Kevin Garnett is on the floor. Six seasons after he arrived in Boston and helped deliver the team its 17th world title, the soon-to-be 37-year-old Garnett remains supremely vital to Boston's success.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsKevin Garnett's impact on the Celtics can't be measured just by plus/minus or defensive metrics.

Garnett sat out 12 of the team's final 17 regular-season games, including eight straight -- those two losses to New York included -- while allowing left ankle inflammation to subside.

Garnett will be operating on nearly a full week's rest when Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series with New York tips on Saturday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, ABC) at Madison Square Garden. After doing all they could to keep him down for the better part of the past month, the Celtics are ready to unleash Garnett in hopes he can help the team do what few believe they can: make another postseason run.

It was Garnett who bellowed, "Anything is possible" after the team dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 Finals. That remains true for Boston, as long as Garnett is on the floor.

One needs only be reminded of Garnett's playoff impact last season, when the Celtics were a staggering plus-138 in plus/minus during 737 minutes that Garnett was on the floor. (Boston owned a 3-2 lead over eventual champion Miami in the East finals before the Heat rallied). In the 238 minutes Garnett was off the court, Boston was minus-118.

What's more, Boston's defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was nearly 26 points better when Garnett was on the court last postseason, dipping down to 90.8 during his floor time.

Garnett still is the backbone, the nerve center of Boston's defense. The differentials for the 2012-13 season, even as Boston endured injuries and inconsistent play, remain staggering based on Garnett's presence.

The Celtics -- minus-18 overall on the season -- were plus-112 in the 1,502 minutes Garnett was on the floor and minus-130 when he was on the bench. Boston's defensive rating (100.4 overall; sixth best in the league) skyrocketed without Garnett (104.6), but dipped hard with him (96.2).

It's simply impossible to overstate what Garnett means to this team. While he can't win this series alone, Boston couldn't win it without him. Rivers hasn't been bashful in admitting that.

After that 19-point loss in New York, Celtics captain Paul Pierce was asked a similar question about the since-come-to-fruition matchup with the Knicks.

"I guess the only positive is, if we get to see them again in the playoffs, hopefully KG will be a lot healthier then," Pierce said. "He was a big difference in the win we got against them here in the Garden. That element makes us a different team, adding him."

Father Time has made Garnett's body ache (and his ankles inflame) a little more, but that hasn't prevented him from maintaining his role as a defensive anchor. According to Synergy Sports data, Garnett allowed 0.765 points per play this season, ranking eighth among all players with at least 650 total possessions defended. Opponents shot 39.6 percent against him and scored on just 37 percent of total opportunities.

That's a small step backward for Garnett (last season, he limited opponents to 0.694 points per play, opponents shot 34.6 percent against him and scored 34.8 percent of the time), but his impact on Boston's team defense remains remarkable.

And, in the broader picture, it's what Garnett means to the Celtics in all phases that hammers home how important his presence is.

"I think every coach should have a chance to coach him for one day," Rivers said. "Really, I just think he's the best team superstar to ever play the game. Magic [Johnson] might be my No. 2 guy. They just do so many things for the team.

"[Garnett] passed Jerry West in scoring, and you just think, if he wanted to, he could have been up there at the top, or close, but that's just not who he is. He's so team-oriented, everything he says, everything he does. He makes you a better coach. There's no doubt about that."

After Garnett returned to the court following his eight-game absence and helped the Celtics to a win over the Washington Wizards, Avery Bradley, who might be Boston's defensive conscience of the future, fawned over what Garnett means to this team. Along the way, he echoed a familiar sentiment in the Boston locker room: "I love playing with Kevin."

Garnett showed earlier this season that he can get in the head of Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, and Boston will need him to do it again to be successful in the postseason. That's just one of the things that Garnett's numbers can't quantify, how his intensity (and nonstop chatter) have a way of disrupting the opposition.

The Celtics are a 7-seed for a reason, and they often bumbled their way through this seesaw season. But they brought some of those woes on themselves, particularly at the end of the season when the team paced Garnett.

Now he's healthy. He's rested. And if you asked Rivers why his team is so confident entering the playoffs, he'd probably tell you it's because Garnett is playing.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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