A year ago the Boston Celtics lost a seven-game series to the Orlando Magic, and — even though he didn’t play a second — it was all Kevin Garnett’s fault. It was his injury — his presence, on the bench, in a suit — that kept Boston from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. Only Garnett’s absence derailed Boston from an otherwise inevitable ECF meeting with the King of Cleveland.
As Garnett helplessly watched Game Seven from the sideline, screaming obscenities from his spot on the bench as his teammates struggled in an attempt to handle Orlando’s versatility, a game Celtics team fell. It wasn’t their time. Not with their heart and soul cruelly confined to the bench.
Now Garnett is back, and the Celtics finally get what they desperately wanted last year: A chance to battle Cleveland at full strength. Only they aren’t at full strength. Not Kevin Garnett, anyway.
All season long, Garnett has been hobbled. He’s not the same. He gets beat defensively, like he never used to. By bums, sometimes. He misses dunks, and comes up short on alley-oops. He still has the sweet stroke from midrange, but can no longer find his way down low. Once a mismatch on the block and everywhere else, Kevin Garnett is now a glorified role player. And it’s sad.
But as disappointing as his season has been to some and as far away he has become from the player he once was, Kevin Garnett — and not anybody else — is the Celtics’ key to beating Cleveland. He is their x-factor, their wild-card and — should they win — could very well be their savior.
Because Garnett is one guy Cleveland shouldn’t be able to handle. He will likely be defended by Antawn Jamison, the type of hybrid four that has become so valuable in the NBA. A big man who can step out and hit the three or put his ass down low and make a little sweet low-post music. Think Rashard Lewis, except Jamison tends to make shots from very odd angles and flanks none other than Lebron James. Scary, I know.
But Jamison, at only 6’9″, doesn’t possess nearly the length, athleticism or defensive aptitude to defend Garnett. Not an aggressive, healthy Garnett at least. If he wants, and if he’s capable — two “iffy” ifs, in a so-so season — Garnett should get the better of Jamison. With his lethal fadeaway to either side, KG could have Jamison in his back pocket should KG decide to be aggressive. With Lebron on Paul Pierce and the Cavs sure to focus a lot of attention on containing Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, Garnett could hold the C’s greatest offensive mismatch.
Of course, there’s always the other end of the floor. Once upon a time, Garnett would have gobbled up Jamison for dessert. Alas, that was back when the term “lateral movement” was still in Garnett’s vocabulary. This is a new Garnett, a Garnett that now struggles to contain the league’s more agile fours. It used to be that KG could defend point guards in the full court, or switch with ease onto ball handlers on screen-and-rolls. Not anymore, and neither can he easily defend players the likes of Antawn Jamison. It’s the quick, shifty players who can put the ball on the floor or shoot the long ball that now give Garnett trouble. Unfortunately, Jamison is just that.
He’s also the Cavs’ second-best player, meaning that if Garnett can somehow summons his defensive mastery of former years the Cavaliers will be down a second-fiddle. Not that the Cavs have no other options behind Jamison and Lebron James, but Jamison right now is their only consistent second scorer. Mo Williams is always liable to cough up a brick-fest (see: 2-13 Game Five against Chicago), Shaq (almost literally) can’t carry his weight anymore, and Anderson Varejao is a monster but not a scoring threat.
So if Garnett can slow Jamison down to a trot and Cleveland is again torn down to Lebron and a bunch of misfits, it could open up the door to a Boston upset. And if Garnett can somehow attack Jamison on both ends while making the Cavs pay for losing some length this season, he could turn this series in the Celtics’ favor. A tall task, but possible nonetheless. Especially when given Garnett’s height and length advantage, and his shutdown defense on one Michael Beasley in round one. To be fair, Beasley shut himself down as much as Garnett did, but he was the kind of agile four Garnett had struggled against all year and Garnett limited him to absolutely nothing.
It’s a sign of the times that Boston no longer expects, or even hopes, Garnett will be the go-to guy. But if the Celtics are to somehow defeat the mighty Cavs, that regular season juggernaut that has yet to come through when it matters most, the not-quite-deteriorating seven-footer could be the biggest reason why.