|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
BOSTON -- As Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers settled in behind the podium for his postgame press conference, he let out a sigh and offered to no one in particular, "That was better."
Yup, it's a wonder what Kevin Garnett can do for your basketball team.
Sidelined for eight games due to left ankle inflammation, Garnett returned Sunday night against the Washington Wizards and helped Boston to a 107-96 triumph at TD Garden.
|Kevin Garnett's stat line didn't dazzle, but his presence on defense is undeniable.|
His stat line won't overwhelm, as Garnett finished with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go along with 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals over a manageable 24 minutes of floor time.
But Garnett's mere presence on the floor made Boston a much different team, particularly on the defensive end, where he was so sorely missed.
In the eight games Garnett sat out, Boston posted a defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 103.4 -- about 3½ points above their season average. On Sunday night, in the 24 minutes Garnett was on the floor, Boston's defensive rating plummeted to 84.7.
Eighty-four point seven!
Sure, the Wizards' offense has a way of making opposing defenses look good, but Washington shot 39 percent when Garnett was on the floor and rarely wandered near the hoop with him patrolling. Allow Avery Bradley to gush about what Garnett's presence means to the Celtics.
"Kevin's presence on the floor -- I love playing with Kevin, man," Bradley said. "He just, his intensity, he makes everything easier on everybody. He talks the whole game. I love playing with him."
The Celtics simply possessed a different swagger Sunday, both on the court and in the locker room. Players were looser on and off the floor, and it all stems from having No. 5 back in action.
Getting Paul Pierce back after a one-game absence from a sore right ankle didn't hurt, either. For the first time this season, the Celtics were able to trot out their preferred starting lineup with Garnett and Pierce next to Bradley, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass. That five-man unit was plus-7 in plus/minus over a team-high 10 minutes of court time, an encouraging start for a group that had logged only 13 minutes together coming into the game.
Most encouraging for that unit was that it posted a defensive rating of 77.8 and hit the defensive glass hard. Not surprisingly, that's the hallmark of Garnett-led lineups.
The trickle-down effect of Garnett's return saw Boston's bench provide super efficient output in shorter minutes, highlighted by the big man combo of Shavlik Randolph and Chris Wilcox pairing up for 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting with 12 rebounds in 35 minutes.
The Celtics blew the game open in the third quarter, building an 18-point lead that should have had Gino dancing on the JumboTron (cementing Garnett's celebratory comeback), but Pierce and Garnett had to check back in for a three-minute stretch to slam the door.
But that only served to spotlight their value. That's a nice luxury that Rivers has missed dearly. Pierce liked what he saw from his team on Sunday.
"I feel good because I know when we're all out there, and we're on, we're as tough as anybody in the East to beat, especially with Kevin's presence," Pierce said. "We're not going anywhere without Kevin's presence, just to be honest with you.
"He 's a big part of what we try to do out there on offense and defense. We play through him a lot. He anchors the defense. It's going to be important for him in these last few games just to kind of get his legs back and get going."
Even as Garnett eases himself back in, it's impossible to ignore his impact.
"Big difference," Bass said. "His talk game, everybody has a little more faith, the guards have more faith with him back there. It means a lot for him to be on the court with us."
Garnett exhibited few signs of rust from a two-week absence. Rivers kept his shifts brief while stretching out his lungs, but even the coach noted, "I thought he was really good. I was surprised how well he was running."
"I felt OK," Garnett said. "I felt strong enough to play and I thought I did decent in my minutes. I picked and chose when I was aggressive, did the things I typically do. That was it.
"I told Ed [trainer Ed Lacerte] that if I felt like I couldn't go, then I wouldn't push myself, but Doc has a lot of trust in what I'm doing, so we're on the same page with where I'm at. So, so far so good."
Garnett heaped praise on the players who stepped up in his absence and stressed the need for the team to restore its chemistry over the final six games before the postseason arrives.
But when it does, Garnett has all sorts of confidence in this group. The sort of confidence his teammates have again now that he's back.
"I know what I have in here," Garnett said. "I know who's willing to fight and who's not going to lay down. I'll take a bunch of fighters over some skilled people any day."
Did seeing the full group on the floor excite Garnett?
"It feels good to be on the floor, period," he said.
Not a single person in that locker room would argue with him.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.