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Kevin Garnett’s move to center key to Celtics’ success

Scoring, defending for Celtics

For 38 minutes Saturday night, Kevin Garnett had his hands on every aspect of the game.

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For 38 minutes Saturday night, Kevin Garnett had his hands on every aspect of the game.

Kevin Garnett has been turning back the clock with his performances since moving to the center position for the Celtics in February. Just how far back?

Garnett had 29 points and 11 rebounds in the Celtics’ 92-91 victory over the 76ers Saturday night at TD Garden, his highest point total in a game since 2008.

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Two days before, Garnett had a 28-point performance in a closeout Game 6 against the Hawks. The 57-point total in consecutive games was Garnett’s best since the 2006-07 season with the Timberwolves.

If Garnett scores 20 or more points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Sixers Monday night, it will be his first three straight 20-plus-point outputs since April 2010.

Garnett, who turns 36 Saturday, reluctantly has become the focal point of the Celtics’ offense. He thrives on organizing the Celtics defensively. His most fulfilling sequences combine defense and offense - turning a stop into a transition score. In the halfcourt game, Garnett prefers to be a facilitator, making sure the team’s passing game is flowing and the open man is receiving the ball.

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But Garnett also spends considerable practice time taking perimeter jumpers. And coach Doc Rivers spends a significant amount of his persuasive powers in an attempt to convince Garnett to take those shots in games.

Since Garnett moved to the “5’’ spot in February, he has found opposing centers either reluctant or unable to extend their defense outside the lane, leaving him open for 18-footers. And Garnett has been gladly taking what the defense is giving. In the Celtics’ seven playoff contests, Garnett has attempted 109 shots, tied with Paul Pierce for the team lead. Garnett is shooting 52.3 percent from the field, far above the team’s 43.4 percent.

But there are other numbers indicating the importance of Garnett. Rivers was not exaggerating when he noted the Celtics’ “plus-minus with him off the floor right now is horrendous.’’

Just how bad are the Celtics without Garnett?

For the six first-round games against Atlanta, the Garnett-less Celtics’ prorated numbers over 100 possessions (which is approximately the length of a game) were minus-33 points, according to basketballvalue.com. With Garnett on the court, the Celtics were plus-16.

“He’s making it so hard when he’s off the floor for 12 or 10 minutes,’’ Rivers said. “I mean, you’re in a panic right now. And that’s an area we’re going to have to improve.

“He’s going to sit for 10 or 12 minutes a game. But when he’s on the floor, he’s doing everything for us. He had a great block late in the game, he’s making big shots, he’s posting, he’s getting to the foul line. He’s just playing fantastic.’’

Garnett’s 29-point total against the Sixers was his best since the 2008 playoffs, when he produced 33 against Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Garnett’s highest previous consecutive-game point total as a Celtic was 52 (32 and 20) in the ’08 first-round series against Atlanta.

Rivers’s concern is not to burn out the Celtics’ brightest candle, just as he is lighting up defenses. But the Celtics have been pushing the limits with Garnett, who went for a season-high 42 minutes in an overtime Game 3 of the Atlanta series.

In Game 1 against the Sixers, Rivers did his best to pace Garnett, saving him for a last-quarter sprint, though the Celtics had fallen behind by 8 points late in the third quarter.

Rivers consulted with assistant coach Kevin Eastman, who was monitoring Garnett’s minutes.

“Once we got down, I told [Eastman] we’re going to need him the whole fourth,’’ Rivers said. “I said I don’t care how far we get down for the three [quarters], but we’re saving minutes.’’

So going into the final quarter, it was up to Eastman to check Garnett’s account. At that point, Garnett had logged 26 minutes, 8:20 of that in the third quarter, making him available to go the full final 12.

“And Kevin [Eastman] was so . . . he was excited when he ran over to me and said [Garnett] can play the rest of the game - it’ll still keep him under the maximum,’’ Rivers said. “It’s still tough, though, honestly. Because it’s the minutes in a row that I manage more than the cumulative minutes for him. And that was the risk. But he handled it pretty well.’’

“We feel like that’s our advantage every night, you know, when you look at the Eastern Conference, the teams that have got to match up with him,’’ Pierce said. “We are going to ride Kevin all the way until his wheels fall off. And he’s bringing it every night. He understands the sense of urgency with this ball club and he’s giving it everything he’s got out there for us. And he’s looking like the 04’ MVP, definitely.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.
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