They had a tall trash-talker in the middle who directed his teammates like a traffic cop, an intimidating anchor in the paint who the Celtics guards knew would have their back if they somehow got beat off the dribble.
Kevin Garnett’s absence leaves a void in more ways than can be counted for the Celtics, but the defensive intensity he brought will be sorely missed, as it changed the franchise from his very first day in green.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge laughed when asked on media day about who could replace Garnett’s intensity on that end.
“Oh, boy,” he said. “That may take another decade to find that. KG is a special player. Avery [Bradley] is our best defender now, and we need guys to follow his lead and we need more guys playing with that same kind of intensity.
“But there aren’t KGs just laying around out there.”
While Bradley is a stout defensive guard with a bulldog mentality of latching onto opponents and not letting go, he still plays on the perimeter. It’s a whole other element to have an intimidating defender in the lane who makes offensive players think twice before driving in that general direction.
Even Bradley said that while he wants his defense to be contagious, the Celtics, who resume practice Saturday and play their first preseason game Monday against Toronto at TD Garden, are not necessarily a perimeter-defense-type team now because Garnett is gone.
“I wouldn’t just say that, because Brandon Bass helps out a lot on defense,” Bradley said. “He’s a great defender, believe it or not.”
Bass, a 6-foot-8-inch, 250-pound eight-year veteran, played alongside Garnett for much of last season but was far more reserved than the perennial All-Star, though that’s true of almost every player in the pro ranks.
But Bass was forced to be more vocal — to become a traffic cop, actually — late last season when Garnett sat out several games to rest. And, in fact, Bass said that, more than anything, the main aspect about Garnett that stays with him is the notion of communicating on the defensive end.
“He picked up a lot of stuff from KG and he helps everybody out,” Bradley said. “He’s like the vet for the bigs and he’s been talking them through everything. I feel like we can be a great defensive team if we all talk and help each other out.”
As the quarterback of the defense, as Bradley called him, Bass said he has to call out what he sees, much the way Garnett did, while also providing a safety blanket for his teammates.
“Well, us as bigs, we want to let the guards know we have their backs,” Bass said. “That’s why we’re going to communicate a lot. It makes us a better defensive team as a whole.”
Bass is a versatile defender and has guarded post players and some of the larger, more physical perimeter scorers in recent years, including LeBron James, whom Bass has held his own against.
But rookie Celtics coach Brad Stevens made it clear that being a leader on either end, or overall, isn’t a job for just one player, including Bass.
“First of all, everybody has to be themselves,” said Stevens. “They need to be the best themselves they can be. They all need to take the responsibility to lead by serving each other, by being a great teammate. And then clearly we have a guy like [Rajon] Rondo, who has been here, who they all respect, who can take a more vocal leadership role early on, and you just hope that expands over time.”
Still, Bass acknowledged that training camp, which the Celtics completed Thursday in Newport, R.I., was much quieter without Garnett’s constant barking.
“It’s different,” Bass said, smiling. “I’ll say that.”