Their roster is fractured, with pieces that won’t return again this season and others that have been apart for games here or there or, in some cases, several all over.
The Celtics are still, if you consider what they could have, shorthanded, specifically a large set of capable mitts owned by an All-Star point guard. But they were, finally, as whole as possible for the first time in some time Sunday at TD Garden.
Kevin Garnett returned. Paul Pierce did, too. And the Celtics and their fans received a glimpse of a lineup that Boston hopes will carry it through a prosperous playoff run.
The first preview of that lineup was promising, as the Celtics pummeled the Washington Wizards, 107-96, in a game Boston led by as many as 18 points.
Garnett played after missing eight games with inflammation in his left ankle, finishing with 12 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I felt OK,” he said. “I felt strong enough to play.”
But Garnett’s presence alone was enough to help the Celtics shore up defensive woes, specifically in the paint, where they had been crushed in his absence.
Behind Garnett, Boston won the points in the paint battle, 50-36.
“He shows them the way,” coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s not just that he’s on the floor, guarding guys. It’s his talk, it’s his presence, and teams don’t really want to post him up.”
Said Avery Bradley: “I love playing with Kevin. He just, his intensity, he just makes everything easier on everybody.”
Pierce returned after missing one game with a turned right ankle, adding 15 points and five assists. He said his ankle felt better than a few days ago, but was still tender.
Of his team, though, Pierce said he feels pretty good.
“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.”
Garnett showed little rust, but the Celtics didn’t need too much from him, either, as they received a balanced effort from many players that helped them take control in the third quarter, when a 19-3 run put them ahead, 77-60, with 3:51 left.
Washington, which had 17 turnovers that the Celtics turned into 23 points, never closed to within double digits the rest of the way.
John Wall, who was hounded by Bradley, scored 16 points on 8-of-20 shooting and added 10 assists.
For the Celtics, Brandon Bass scored a team-high 20 points — just 2 short of his season high — on 9-of-12 shooting while grabbing six rebounds.
Bass’s teammates have marveled at how he has been productive in recent games despite the team not calling plays for him.
Bass said he’s a product of the players around him.
“Things flow a lot smoother when Kevin and Paul are there because everything is being run through them and everybody else is just getting what they’re getting from them,” Bass said. “It’s a lot better with them out there.”
It was the first time since March 22 at Dallas that Garnett and Pierce were together in the starting lineup, which Sunday also featured Bass, Bradley, and Jeff Green.
Entering Sunday, that lineup had been on the floor for a combined 13 minutes this season — and it’s one the Celtics will rely on going forward.
“It doesn’t matter what lineup goes or who’s on the floor as long as we’re playing the right way,” Garnett said. “That’s all my concern is. Just making sure that we’re sharing the ball, playing as a team, giving up for each other, playing defensively, being one voice, one sound — those are the things that are most important.”
Green picked up four fouls in 17 minutes and struggled thereafter. He had 8 points and spent much of the game as a cheerleader on the bench. Bradley scored 10.
The Celtics’ bench contributed 42 points, led by 13 from Chris Wilcox, 9 from Jason Terry, and 8 points and seven rebounds from Shavlik Randolph. Jordan Crawford scored 6 in his first game against the team that traded him to Boston in February.
“That’s the kind of team that we have to be,” Bradley said. “They do a lot for us, that energy, Chris brings that energy; Shav brings that energy to the floor. Our team is very deep. Especially when we are executing our plays, it’s very hard to stop us.”
The Celtics are 1½ games behind Atlanta for the sixth seed in the East, which would set up a first-round matchup with Indiana.
The Celtics won the season series with Atlanta, 3-1, so if the teams finish with identical records, Boston will get the higher seed.
Garnett was asked if he felt better about the Celtics’ playoff chances now that he’s seen what they’re capable of with all their pieces together.
“I’ve always felt better,” he said. “I know what I have in here. I know who’s willing to fight, who’s not going to lay down. I’d take a bunch of fighters over some skill people any day.”
From here, the Celtics will look to build momentum and confidence and for Garnett to get back into a rhythm as the playoffs near. They aren’t at full strength, but they’re as strong as they can be, and for now, that’s good enough.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes.