Tuesday April 28th, 2009

This story appears in the May 4, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.

What about Kevin? It's the question Celtics coach Doc Rivers has been asked so many times over the last month that his response has become almost automated. Yes, Kevin is still hurt. No, I don't expect him to play. Yes, it's still possible he will play. It's the question Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo have been bombarded with so often, you expect to peer down at their wrists and see WWKD (What Would Kevin Do?) bracelets. Breakdown in pick-and-roll coverage: Would Kevin have helped? An off night from the perimeter: What if Kevin had been available on the low post? It was even the question NBA commissioner

David Stern (who at last check had a J.D. and not an M.D. attached to his name) got hit with at the start of an informal media session before Game 3 of Boston's first-round series against the Bulls, taking priority over such trivial matters as the impact of the economic recession on the league and possible expansion into Europe. (For the record, Stern called Garnett's situation "a tough one.") The subject of Garnett and his lingering right-knee injury -- diagnosed by the Celtics as a strained popliteal tendon, with the possibility that Garnett could return by the conference finals -- has become the dominant sports topic in the Hub, overshadowing the Bruins' playoff run and the Red Sox' opening month. The will-he-or-won't-he-play debate rages from daytime to drive time, and Garnett's every movement has become Twitter worthy. KG just bent dwn 2 tie sneaks. Looked painful. Tweet!

Garnett's injury looms as the largest of the obstacles that have popped up on Boston's path to defending the NBA crown. There was the matchup with Chicago, one of the league's hottest teams, which surged into the playoffs with a 12-4 regular-season finish. There was the torn left ACL in Game 2 that ended power forward Leon Powe's season, and the multiple concussions that sidelined Brian Scalabrine for the last two months of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs. (He returned to action last Thursday wearing a protective headband.) There was the shocking news on April 16 that G.M. Danny Ainge had suffered a heart attack (he is out of the hospital and recuperating at home) and the mysterious death threats made against guard Tony Allen that have resulted in beefed-up security along the Celtics' bench. And there was the right-ankle sprain incurred in Game 2 by Rondo, Boston's most consistent player in Garnett's absence. Even though the nimble point guard is playing through the pain, he needed to be carried from the floor to the locker room after Game 3. The Bulls' 121-118 win in double overtime on Sunday tied the series at 2-2 and kept pressure on the defending champions to prove they can overcome so much adversity. "I don't mind the injuries," says Rivers. "I just wish they could be spread out a little more. We have had so much thrown at us in such a short time. It speaks to the character of this group that we have been able to play the way we have played."

Okay, so what about Kevin? If Celtics players stumble when they attempt to answer questions about life without Garnett, it's because despite the injury, he's still very much around. Aside from his conspicuous absence from the bench during the second half of Game 1 -- he was so frustrated at being unable to play that he went to the locker room to watch the game on TV -- Garnett has been a constant presence. "I call him Coach Kevin," says Rivers. "He's always talking to the guys, offering advice." Indeed, at halftime of Game 3, Rivers, after briefly huddling with his staff in a room adjacent to Boston's locker room, went in to address the team and found that Garnett had beaten him to it. "He was standing up there with the video pointer," says Rivers. "I love it. If you don't listen to Kevin, there is something wrong with you."

The player benefiting the most from Garnett's influence is Glen (Big Baby) Davis, the wide-bodied power forward who has filled Garnett's spot in the starting lineup. Garnett has been something of a mentor to the 2007 second-round pick, but that hasn't always been easy for Davis; Garnett's standards are high, and he lets Davis know when his protégé has fallen short. In a December game against Portland, Davis was reduced to tears when Garnett chewed him out during a timeout after Boston's bench squandered a 25-point fourth-quarter lead and Rivers had to bring his starters back into the game.

But Garnett may also be Davis's strongest supporter. Just before each opening tip in the playoffs, Garnett spends about 30 seconds jabbering in Davis's ear, his face so close that his nose threatens to puncture Davis's eardrum. "Kevin and Glen, they have a different relationship," says Pierce. "Glen looks to Kevin for advice. Part of why he has improved so much is because Kevin is talking to him all the time." In Game 1 Bulls point guard Derrick Rose torched the Celtics for 36 points, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's NBA record for most points in a playoff debut. Rose's weapon of choice was the pick-and-roll -- one unofficial count had the Bulls running it 41 times, often at the expense of the hulking Davis, who was slow to seal off Rose's path to the basket. After the game, as a despondent Davis sat slumped in front of his locker, Garnett, one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league, towered over him, barking encouragement and assuring Davis (in colorful language) that he would perform better the next game. Sure enough, Davis was a step quicker in Game 2, and the Celtics held Rose to 10 points on 5-of-11 shooting.

Still, there is only so much help Garnett can provide in a well-tailored suit. Without his presence in the low post, the Celtics' offense is dependent on the perimeter shooting of Pierce and Allen and on Rondo's ability to create off penetration. Rondo has had a superior first round, averaging a triple double (23.3 points, 10.0 assists and a startling 10.8 rebounds) through four games. But Pierce and Allen have been inconsistent. In the first two games Pierce shot 40%, and he missed a likely game-winning free throw in Game 1. Allen's electric 30-point performance in Game 2 balanced his four points and 1-for-12 shooting in the opener. This unevenness shows why Boston's championship prospects cloud significantly without Garnett. "Kevin is our run stopper," says Rivers. "With him there we had the option of throwing it in the post and letting him swing it around, or take it himself and score. We could control the pace. Without him we have trouble controlling it."

He's missed on defense as well. In games played with Garnett in the regular season, the Celtics gave up 90.8 points per game; without him that number ballooned to 99.4. This is because Garnett is a master at seeing where a play is going and positioning his teammates accordingly. Also, he just plain scares people. "There are a lot of [soft players] in this league," says an Eastern Conference coach. "And Garnett intimidates every one of them."

One can only imagine how that intimidation would have affected the Bulls, who have three starters under age 25. An hour before the opening tip in Game 1, Joakim Noah, 24, nervously tapped his feet on the faded carpet of the visitors' locker room. As a dozen or so reporters milled about, he squirmed by his locker stall, then abruptly bolted to his feet.

"Hey, man," he said, to no one in particular, "how long is the media in here?"

"Calm down," said Tyrus Thomas, 22.

After making a quick lap around the room, Noah made a beeline for the locker room door, going to the court.

"A lot of young fellas here," said reserve guard Lindsey Hunter, who entered the series with 141 games of playoff experience to Noah's none. "Lot of pent-up energy."

But when Chicago took the floor, that energy suddenly looked like a good thing. In Game 1 Rose outdueled Rondo as the Bulls pulled out a 105-103 overtime win. Chicago showed similar scrap in Game 2, falling just short in an epic duel between Ben Gordon (42 points) and Allen in what Rivers called a battle to determine "the best UConn player to ever play." Gordon extended the debate in a thrilling Game 4. With his team trailing by three late in the first overtime, Gordon knocked down an impossible fading three-pointer with Pierce hanging off his right shoulder. That pushed the game into a second overtime, in which the Bulls outscored Boston 11-8 to snatch a series-tying victory. "We have some resiliency we didn't know we had," said guard Kirk Hinrich afterward. "Earlier in the season we might not have won a game like this."

The Bulls have indeed come a long way this season. Chicago spent the first half toward the bottom of the standings while rookie coach Vinny Del Negro and his staff wrote a playbook from scratch. "We had no system, just a lot of ideas," says assistant Del Harris. "The assistants had never coached together, and Vinny had never coached at all. As we learned the strengths and weaknesses of our players, we found a style that worked."

They built the attack around Rose, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. Besides being a proven winner, having led his Illinois high school team to back-to-back state titles and Memphis to within a free throw of an NCAA championship, he proved early on that he was capable of being the Bulls' focal point. Rose's penetrating skills -- his speed and power resemble those of a running back -- created opportunities for hyperactive big men Thomas and Noah and opened up the floor for Gordon's outside shooting. The midseason acquisition from the Kings of veterans John Salmons (who would ease the loss of forward Luol Deng to a season-ending leg injury) and center Brad Miller encouraged the Bulls to entertain playoffs hopes for this season. Even after Chicago was blown out by 21 points at home in Game 3, Noah declared, "We think we can win right now."

Sunday's win only emboldened Chicago's brash center. As he reclined in a chair in front of his locker after the game, Noah wondered aloud why it was Boston's adversity that everyone was focused on. "People underestimate how much we have gone through," said Noah. "[In January] our [owner] called our season a disaster. We lost six in a row and were booed at home. Three months ago if you asked anyone in Chicago if we would be 2-2 with Boston in the playoffs, I don't think anyone would have told you that could happen." A few doors down the hallway a shell-shocked Celtics team struggled to come up with answers. One thing they do know: If they ultimately win the series, their difficulty in getting past Chicago will serve as a reminder of the hard road ahead. And it will all but guarantee that they'll keep hearing questions about Kevin.

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