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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers used to dread the conversation. Actually, it wasn't much of a conversation. It was Rivers essentially pleading with veteran Kevin Garnett to take time off -- a game, a practice, a shootaround, a team meeting, anything!? -- and Garnett always swatted away the suggestion as if it were an opponent's post-whistle shot.
|Even at age 36, Kevin Garnett has a major impact on the Celtics, particularly on defense.|
But this season, Garnett has relented ever so slightly, listening to a 36-year-old body that requires increased maintenance to operate at peak performance.
Garnett and the other members of Boston's exclusive 35-plus club -- Paul Pierce and Jason Terry -- enjoyed a weekend off the practice floor, the trio getting a bonus rest day Sunday while the team's nine members of the 30-and-under club all went through a light session.
When Garnett plopped down in his preferred spot for a pre-practice interview on Monday, he was already dripping in sweat, having worked up the familiar waterfall from a mere morning lift.
He smiled when asked about the weekend respite, acknowledging, "Days off are good; they are always good." But he was clearly eager to get back to work. Rest still leaves him conflicted.
But both Garnett and Rivers seem to acknowledge the obvious: The Celtics absolutely have to keep Garnett upright until the playoffs roll around. A defensive-minded team simply cannot be competitive without its defensive backbone on the floor.
So that means taking Garnett off the floor at times over the next two months. Rivers unfathomably got Garnett to sit out his first game of the season during a stop in Phoenix in late February. Garnett had labored two nights earlier against the Lakers, looking winded at times on weary legs, and Rivers kicked himself for not resting him then, as criminal as it would have been to not have Garnett for a Celtics-Lakers battle.
And Rivers has pledged to rest Garnett again later this season. He absolutely needs the 18-year veteran healthy if Boston is going to make any sort of run at Banner 18.
"He has given us more [rest days]. We've given him some rest, we've done practices off more than we ever have for him," Rivers said. "In the past, you couldn't even broach that subject with him. And this year, he wants the days off, so I think he's gotten smarter in that regard. And that, to me, is probably the reason he's been able to play in more games. I think the days off have really helped."
Look at the stat line and Garnett's per-game production is virtually unchanged (particularly if you look at the standardized per-36 minute numbers). The Celtics have managed to trim about a minute off Garnett's on-court time, Rivers holding stricter to a plan that has held Garnett at a mere 30.3 minutes per game. (It'd be lower if not for Boston's head-shaking 10 overtime games this season.)
The bottom line is the Celtics are a decidedly better team with Garnett on the floor, so they stomach these regular-season lulls without him in order to ensure his presence when the weather starts to get warmer.
With Garnett on the floor for 1,729 minutes this season, Boston is plus-58; in the 1,130 minutes he's been off the court, it is minus-47. Boston's defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is a glistening 96.5 when Garnett is on the floor, but a cringe-worthy 103.8 when he's off. Opponents shoot 42.9 percent when he's barking out signals from the back line, 45.3 percent when he's on the pine.
Even at age 36, Garnett still is an elite individual defender, too. According to Synergy Sports data, he is allowing 0.754 points per possession this season, ranking him in the 89th percentile among all league players. Narrow that to players with a minimum of 200 possessions defended and Garnett ranks 14th overall.
On Monday, Garnett called Avery Bradley the "anchor" of Boston's defense, with the young guard's relentless ball pressure a big reason that Boston -- once stuck as the 23rd-ranked team in defensive rating -- has surged all the way to fifth (99.5) entering Monday's action.
But make no mistake, much of the security Boston defenders enjoy is knowing they have Garnett behind them, ready to rotate with unmatched help defense.
Those little things that stats can't truly quantify make Garnett so valuable, and that's without mentioning his locker room leadership and how he serves as the entire conscience of the Celtics.
Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck noted last week how -- regardless of the long odds facing Boston in its championship quest -- the team valued keeping Garnett at the trade deadline in large part because of how he would be able to show Boston's young nucleus what it takes to battle in the postseason and, as his decorated career winds down, show them what it takes to be a champion.
Near the end of his media session on Monday, a reporter asked Garnett if there was anything left in his career to accomplish. Having won every major award and having hoisted a title, what could he desire to achieve?
"Winning tomorrow," Garnett said. "Winning tomorrow is the goal."
With that, he stood up, playfully scolded the media for their dumb questions and bounced onto the floor to get up shots before practice.
To Garnett, the only thing that matters is winning. And for the Celtics to win, they need him on the floor. So from now until the end of the regular season on April 17, Garnett ought to take advantage of any rest Rivers suggests.
After all, it's a limited-time offer.