Resilience has become a hallmark of the Celtics. They can summon it at will to absorb injuries, defy detractors, and overcome the odds. But there is no amount of resolve that can adjust for the absence of both a healthy Kevin Garnett and playoff experience.
As long as the Big Ticket is a big question mark with inflammation in his left foot/ankle, the playoff prospects of the Celtics are hazier than the fuliginous rafters of the old Boston Garden on a warm day. The latest report Thursday from Doc “It’s just a nickname” Rivers was that Garnett could be back in action Sunday against the Washington Wizards. Of course the Celtics are to predicting injury recovery times what Neville Chamberlain was to declaring peace in our time.
Many have learned the hard way: you doubt the Green’s playoff chances at your own peril. They’re the possums of the parquet, playing dead and resting their regulars to lull playoff opponents into a false sense of security, only to snap back to basketball life in the postseason. Even as the Celtics, with seven games left on their schedule, limp toward the playoffs, there is an expectation they will follow that familiar pattern one more time. Hub hoop fans harbor the belief that New York or Indiana looms in the first round as a potential mark for the seventh-seeded Celtics.
The Celtics earned that reputation, but not with this collection of players. They earned it with the Core Four of Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. That core has been depleted to just Garnett and Pierce, who is battling an ankle injury of his own and told reporters Thursday he wouldn’t have suited up if the Celtics had a game last night.
These Celtics are dangerous if the Big Two are healthy, but the playoff pelts we’re pointing to as proof belong to another time and other Celtics teams.
It’s relatively certain that in October no Celtics fan envisioned the team prepping for the playoffs in April with a rotation that features the erratic Jordan Crawford and Chinese Basketball Association alumni Terrence Williams, Chris Wilcox, Shavlik Randolph, and D.J. White. More than one of that quartet is going to get minutes in the postseason, by necessity.
The combined playoff experience of those five consists of two games, eight minutes and one field goal attempt, all of which belongs to Randolph, from the ever-memorable 2008 Philadelphia 76ers.
Excuse the Knicks, winners of 10 straight who just got their version of Garnett — Tyson Chandler — back, if they’re not quaking in their high-tops.
Is there anyone still clinging to the notion that the Celtics are better off without Rajon Rondo? Individual players have blossomed without him (see: Green, Jeff), which bodes well for the Big Picture, but overall he is sorely missed. After a 14-4 start sans Rondo, the Celtics are 19-13 without him.
The longing will only become more intense in the playoffs. Say what you will about the restive Rondo, but there are Broadway performers who don’t embrace the big stage the way he does. He is a Playoff Performer, capital letters required.
The fear here with Rondo hors de hoops was never that the Celtics would miss the playoffs. It was that they would have to lean on their aging superstars, Pierce and Garnett, so hard to get there that one or both of them would be in the breakdown lane as the postseason approached.
Rivers has done a masterful job of managing their minutes. Garnett’s average minutes have remained at 30, with and without Rondo. Pierce is up just under a minute a game (from 33.5 to 34.3) without Rondo.
But minutes don’t always equal stress or strain, and those minutes will go up in the playoffs because postseason institutional knowledge is at premium for the Celtics, outside of Pierce and Garnett.
Jason Terry earned his stripes in Dallas. Brandon Bass had his moments last postseason for the Celtics, as did Avery Bradley before succumbing to shoulder injuries. But the rest of the roster has playoff novices and question marks.
Courtney Lee played in 21 playoff games as a rookie as part of an Orlando Magic team that advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009. He hasn’t been back since.
Green, who is going to force a rewriting of the Kendrick Perkins trade if he keeps doing his Carmelo Anthony impression, has 15 playoff games to his name. His career playoff field goal percentage is 37.4. In his last playoff foray with the Celtics in 2011, he looked like a tourist trying to navigate rush-hour traffic in Boston — diffident and uncertain of where to go.
Green’s remarkable recovery from heart surgery and his emergence as a legitimate building block or trade chip has been the silver lining to Rondo’s torn anterior cruciate ligament. It’s debatable whether Green would have experienced this growth with Rondo dominating the ball.
Green has averaged 16.6 points per game since Rondo was lost for the season on Jan. 27, shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers before Rondo’s injury were 9.6 points per game, 42.7 percent shooting and 32.9 percent from 3-point range.
Most telling is that 56.1 percent of Green’s points have been unassisted since Rondo went down, according to NBA.com advanced stats. Prior to that, just 38.8 percent of Green’s points were on unassisted field goals. It’s clear that Green has the ball in his hands more and is creating his own shot.
If he could carry his development into the playoffs, the Celtics would have an intriguing matchup for Anthony of the Knicks or Paul George of the Pacers. The pronouncements of playoff confidence would be merited if that Green shows up.
The NBA playoffs start April 20. The Celtics will be there.
What kind of team they’ll be bringing is to be determined.