It was a play that had been run thousands of times. Kevin Garnett was backing down Earl Clark in the post, before he gathered the ball and shifted away from the Los Angeles Laker player to knock down a fadeaway jumpshot from the top of the paint. It looked like any other of Garnett's career field goals, and it was just another two points in a game the Celtics would win comfortably, but this time the basket was special. It was special because those two points early in the second quarter last night, pushed Garnett over 25,000 points for his career. The long-time Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics forward became just the 16th player in NBA history to crack that milestone.
At 36 years of age, Garnett can feel proud of that historical footnote, but he likely won't...yet.
In typical Garnett fashion, he was reserved in his acknowledgement of the individual achievement. He took time out to raise his hand to each side of the crowd as they stood to applaud him, but his focus barely left the task at hand. The task at hand being an important victory over the Lakers. Even though the Lakers can't be considered a tough matchup for anyone this year, the Celtics needed to win last night in order to keep their post-Rondo momentum moving forward.
Since all-star point guard Rajon Rondo tore his ACL against the Atlanta Hawks in a double-overtime loss, the Celtics have enjoyed their most impressive win streak of the season. As Rondo's status was still unknown, his teammates started out with an overtime victory over the Miami Heat at home, before sweeping past the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, enduring a close victory over the Los Angeles Clippers sans Chris Paul, and finally beating the Raptors in Toronto ahead of the Lakers' victory at home. The Celtics have three days to reflect on their six-game win streak, before they look to extend it to seven against the Denver Nuggets at home.
For all of the premature post-mortem reports following Rondo's injury, the Celtics are not only alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race, they appear to be stronger than ever before. Rondo is a superstar talent who can take over any game at any given time, but he has never been an easy player to play with or a great teammate. He is somewhat selfish in his pursuit of assists, turning away from shots and turning down passes that wouldn't lead to shooting opportunities that hurt ball movement. Without him in the lineup, there is a greater enthusiasm from his teammates and a fluidity that hasn't been apparent in recent years. Players such as Leandro Barbosa and Jason Terry are energized by the opportunity to get the ball in their hands more, while Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley have created a formidable defensive partnership on the perimeter. Even the previously hesitant Jeff Green has benefited from a more orthodox approach to spacing the floor on offense.
Much of the Celtics' success comes back to Garnett however. Statistically, he has taken over in ways that haven't been seen since his days in Minnesota. Over the past five games, Garnett is shooting a shade under 60 percent from the field, averaging 16.2 points(a number that includes a season high 27 against the Toronto Raptors), 7.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals in just 26.8 minutes on the floor. Statistics have never defined the whole value of Garnett however. While his ferocity on the court can be irritating for the opposition at times, see Carmelo Anthony, and downright pantomime at other times, see Ray Allen, Garnett's constant belief and resilience has infused with his teammates and renewed a belief that never really died after Rondo went down.
Despite the Celtics' obvious limitations on the court this season, Garnett reiterated his desire to stay with his teammates through a flurry of trade rumors this past week. While he may be over the top, it is over the top confidence that is allowing the Celtics' previously understated role players to consistently contribute to a winning effort.
In February, Garnett and Pierce have led the way when it comes to scoring, but the unlikely names of Jeff Green and Courtney Lee crop up in third and fourth place with 14.5 and 12.3 points per game respectively. Pierce and Garnett are also rebounding more than anyone else, but Brandon Bass is averaging 5.5 rebounds per game while four more players are averaging at least three in limited time. The biggest worry for the post-Rondo Celtics was assists. Rondo ran the offense exclusively when healthy. Outside of a few Paul Pierce individual efforts, assists often came from Rondo in bulk and sparsely from anyone else on the floor. That is not the case in February. Pierce leads the team with 5.8 assists per game, even though his ratio of assists to turnovers is a lowly 1.8. Jason Terry, resuming the role he has played for most of his career, is averaging 2.7 assists for every turnover and four total per game, while Courtney Lee averages 3.3 assists on a 2.2 ratio. Leandro Barbosa is adding three assists per game, without turning the ball over at all. The Celtics may no longer have Rondo racking up 15+ assists every so often, but they do now have more contributors with eight players averaging at least 1.8 assists per game and 24.8 total per game.
The output on offense has been replaced, while the defensive effort and ability appears to also be much greater. Too often Rondo freelanced on the defensive side, allowing defenders to beat him before trying to knock the ball free from behind. With him now sidelined, the Celtics are working with a half-court defense that has great integrity. Built of off Garnett's presence and communication inside, the Celtics' defensive aggression begins with Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee on the outside. Lee and Bradley don't possess the same natural offensive ability as Rondo, but they are both very gifted defensive players with the tenacity to consistently counter guards from end to end. Doc Rivers can trust the combination to stay disciplined without sacrificing aggression when pressuring the opposition away from the basket. That kind or pressure limits the pressure on the Celtics' bigs to sprint back down the floor after made baskets, while it forces the opposing team's guards to be very precise and controlled when trying to execute in half-court.
With Bradley and Lee both being capable offensive role players, if not leading stars, the Celtics are able to be efficient enough on the offensive end to take advantage of their defensive resilience.
When the Celtics had Rondo in the lineup, there was a certain element of expectation on his shoulders that combined with his own selfish traits that was hurting the overall efficiency of the team. Everyone involved needs to take partial blame for that, but it can't be denied that without Rondo the rest of the team has stepped up. The reason for it isn't important, the fact that it has happened is all that matters.
We really should have seen this coming. Rivers, Pierce and Garnett were never going to let this team quit and fall to the wayside. This may just be the short fight that follows a setback. But maybe, just maybe it may be the sign of a team willing to win the war.