But the way the entire game unfolded was just another reason to admire Kevin Garnett.
The Celtics had folded like washed clothes in two successive third quarters, and looked like they might again. An offense that had looked crisp in the first half was suddenly firing blanks. The turnovers, missed shots, and empty possessions piled on as I thought to myself, “If the Blazers ever get it going offensively, this game is going to turn in a bad direction.”
In a testament to Garnett and the impact his return has on the Boston Celtics, the Blazers never did get it going. Even with the Celtics struggling mightily to put the ball in the hole, Portland ended the third quarter down five points. That’s what happens when a defense can get stops. Those stops allow a team to stay in a game the offense has no business winning.
Portland eventually took the lead. They even had a chance to win at the end of regulation, after a Paul Pierce offensive foul left Portland with the ball and 1.1 seconds to go in a tie game. But, again, the Celtics’ defense was up to the occasion. After stifling ‘D’ almost caused a Portland five-second violation, Portland called a timeout and regrouped for a second chance. This time, Kendrick Perkins smothered Lamarcus Aldridge, and the game was headed to overtime.
The Celtics’ defense, which had been M.I.A. for a week or two, was back in full force. And it might have had a little something to do with the return of one uber-intense power forward.
During the championship season of 2008 and the beginning of last year, the Boston Celtics hung their hats on defense. Their one biggest asset was not just the ability to dial it up to get a huge stop whenever necessary… but the unique characteristic of having the willingness and tenacity to dial it up 48 minutes a night, 82 games a year.
For the past few weeks, as it was at the end of last season, the effort level that once was so uncommon had been lost. No longer did the C’s work harder than any other team; no longer did they treat every defensive possession like it had the potential to be game-ending.
A common theme about this Celtics season has been whether teams are no longer afraid to come play in the TD Garden. But teams were never afraid of the Celtics. This is the NBA, not 5th-6th grade basketball; no team is going to roll over and die just because an opponent is big and bad.
No, teams were certainly never afraid of the Boston Celtics. Not even the championship version of a couple years ago. The Celts simply pounded teams into submission with a suffocating defense and high-efficiency offense. The C’s were more talented than other teams, but that wasn’t their biggest strength. Outworking their opponent, every minute of every night… THAT was why the Celtics were so good.
For a while now, the undying sense of urgency that once made the Celtics so special has been gone. With it went the feeling that Boston could come in and steamroll opponents… And the perch upon the NBA’s throne… And all the easy blowout wins… And the nights when I would watch the Celtics in wonderment and awe, struggling to grasp how they could exert so much energy at all times.
With KG’s return, I wonder if the Celtics will ever be able to return to the team they once were. I know the Celtics, as currently constructed, will be one of the NBA’s top teams when it’s all said and done. I know they’ll have a shot to challenge for another championship. I know they’ll win a lot of basketball games.
But for a team that once strived for perfection, none of that should be enough. The Celtics should stop at nothing short of once again becoming the hungry team preying for its next meal on every possession.
For one night, against Portland, the Celtics reminded me of that team. They came up with all the big stops. They outraced Portland to loose balls. They overcame a bad shooting night to come away with a gritty win.
Once upon a time, the Celtics did those things every night. To truly regain the form they once exhibited each game, defense and effort have to be as consistent as the sun rising in the morning.
I still believe Boston can do it, that Boston can reeastablish themselves as the NBA’s hardest-working bunch.
The man who has the ability to lead them there is finally back.