Standing in front of a throng of reporters, Celtics coach Doc Rivers appeared on the edge of channeling his inner Jim Mora.
Cleveland? What about Cleveland? I'm not even sure we can get past Chicago!
Rivers didn't, of course. He did what you would expect: lament the loss of star forward Kevin Garnett, who was put back on the shelf after a 20-minute workout Thursday morning left the swollen tendon in his right knee in worse shape than it was a week earlier.
In a spectacular moment of ambiguity, Rivers did not officially rule out Garnett for the entire postseason, but the coach said Boston's emotional leader was "ruled out to me." Rivers did extol the talents of backup forwards Glen Davis and Leon Powe. He said in no way were his statements about Garnett's injury to be interpreted as a "concession speech," and that with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on board, the Celtics were still a tough team to beat.
Moments earlier, Allen stood in the same spot and worked off the same script. He called the loss of Garnett "unfortunate" and said he was "devastated" for his teammate, but added that the team "still feels good about what we're are capable of."
A few minutes later, it was Pierce's turn. The Celtics' captain said Garnett's absence was "hurting him more than it was hurting us." He said he was prepared for a playoff run without Garnett "10 or 12 games ago" and talked about how the Celtics could now officially move on knowing he wasn't going to be with them.
And Pierce was right. They were all right. Right up until the point where they said they could still defend their championship. Because they can't.
This is not a knock on Pierce, who in the last two-and-a-half months has looked like Pierce circa 2002, when he averaged a career-best 26.1 points per game and carried Boston to the Eastern Conference finals. This season, he averaged 24.7 points in February, 21.4 points in March and 22.7 points in April. His scoring average is up nearly four points with Garnett out of the lineup. "I don't think I've ever seen Pierce playing better," an NBA scout said last month.
Nor is it an attempt to disparage Allen, who tied a career high by shooting 48 percent from the field, averaged 18.2 points and set the franchise record for free-throw accuracy (95.2 percent) this season.
And it's certainly not an attack on Powe or Davis. In just two years Powe has emerged as one of the most physical rebounders in the league. "He kills us on the glass," said an assistant coach from an Eastern Conference playoff team. "He's relentless, you just can't move him out." Meanwhile, Davis, whose wide body and soft touch around the rim made a perimeter game superfluous at the college level, has become a valuable role player thanks to the 15-foot jump shot he added to his game in the offseason.
Those are all positives for Boston. But they are dwarfed by one, 6-foot-11, 253-pound negative: Garnett.
Garnett is, quite simply, irreplaceable. The defensive numbers speak for themselves: Boston is giving up 90.8 points with Garnett, 99.1 without him. But Garnett's contributions on the offensive end are often overlooked. True, Boston's scoring average is up 2.2 points without KG. But Garnett is not only Boston's most effective post presence, but many times its only low-post presence ((sorry, Kendrick Perkins). Without him, Boston becomes "Orlando Lite," a strong perimeter-shooting team but without the benefit of having Dwight Howard manning the middle.
Boston probably has enough to win its first-round series. Chicago has played like a different team since acquiring Brad Miller (11.8 points, 5.0 rebounds with the Bulls) and John Salmons (18.3 points, 84.3 percent from the free-throw line). The Bulls are 12-4 since March 13, including 9-2 at home during that stretch. But the Bulls are young at two key positions -- point guard and power forward -- and the perimeter matchups (Boston's Rajon Rondo vs. Chicago's Derrick Rose, Pierce vs. Salmons, Allen vs. Ben Gordon) favor the Celtics.
But if the Celtics advance, they will be at a decided disadvantage against their potential second- and third-round opponents. Without Garnett, Boston will sorely miss a defender who is long enough and strong enough to contend with Howard. Should the Celtics get past the Magic, they will face a tsunami of big men from the Cavaliers, who will wear down Boston's front line in the ways the Celtics did to so many teams last season.
Banner No. 18 may still go up with Garnett, Pierce and Allen in Celtics uniforms. Unfortunately, it will likely take a miracle to raise it after this season.
SI.COM:How will Garnett's absence affect Boston's playoff run?AP: Rivers: Garnett could miss entire postseason