What about Kevin?It's the question Celtics coach Doc Rivers has been asked so many times overthe last month that his response has become almost automated. Yes, Kevin isstill hurt. No, I don't expect him to play. Yes, it's still possible he willplay. It's the question Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo have beenbombarded 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: WouldKevin have helped? An off night from the perimeter: What if Kevin had beenavailable on the low post? It was even the question NBA commissioner DavidStern (who at last check had a J.D. and not an M.D. attached to his name) gothit with at the start of an informal media session before Game 3 of Boston'sfirst-round series against the Bulls, taking priority over such trivial mattersas the impact of the economic recession on the league and possible expansioninto Europe. (For the record, Stern called Garnett's situation "a toughone.") The subject of Garnett and his lingering right-knee injury—diagnosedby the Celtics as a strained popliteal tendon, with the possibility thatGarnett could return by the conference finals—has become the dominant sportstopic 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 drivetime, and Garnett's every movement has become Twitter worthy. KG just bent dwn2 tie sneaks. Looked painful. Tweet!
This is an article from the May 4, 2009 issue
Garnett's injurylooms as the largest of the obstacles that have popped up on Boston's path todefending the NBA crown. There was the matchup with Chicago, one of theleague's hottest teams, which surged into the playoffs with a 12--4regular-season finish. There was the torn left ACL in Game 2 that ended powerforward Leon Powe's season, and the multiple concussions that sidelined BrianScalabrine for the last two months of the regular season and the first twogames of the playoffs. (He returned to action last Thursday wearing aprotective headband.) There was the shocking news on April 16 that G.M. DannyAinge had suffered a heart attack (he is out of the hospital and recuperatingat home) and the mysterious death threats made against guard Tony Allen thathave resulted in beefed-up security along the Celtics' bench. And there was theright-ankle sprain incurred in Game 2 by Rondo, Boston's most consistent playerin Garnett's absence. Even though the nimble point guard is playing through thepain, 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--2and kept pressure on the defending champions to prove they can overcome so muchadversity. "I don't mind the injuries," says Rivers. "I just wishthey could be spread out a little more. We have had so much thrown at us insuch a short time. It speaks to the character of this group that we have beenable to play the way we have played."
Okay, so whatabout Kevin? If Celtics players stumble when they attempt to answer questionsabout life without Garnett, it's because despite the injury, he's still verymuch around. Aside from his conspicuous absence from the bench during thesecond half of Game 1—he was so frustrated at being unable to play that he wentto the locker room to watch the game on TV—Garnett has been a constantpresence. "I call him Coach Kevin," says Rivers. "He's alwaystalking to the guys, offering advice." Indeed, at halftime of Game 3,Rivers, after briefly huddling with his staff in a room adjacent to Boston'slocker room, went in to address the team and found that Garnett had beaten himto 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 withyou."
The playerbenefiting the most from Garnett's influence is Glen (Big Baby) Davis, thewide-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 thathasn't always been easy for Davis; Garnett's standards are high, and he letsDavis know when his protégé has fallen short. In a December game againstPortland, Davis was reduced to tears when Garnett chewed him out during atimeout after Boston's bench squandered a 25-point fourth-quarter lead andRivers had to bring his starters back into the game.
But Garnett mayalso be Davis's strongest supporter. Just before each opening tip in theplayoffs, Garnett spends about 30 seconds jabbering in Davis's ear, his face soclose that his nose threatens to puncture Davis's eardrum. "Kevin and Glen,they have a different relationship," says Pierce. "Glen looks to Kevinfor advice. Part of why he has improved so much is because Kevin is talking tohim all the time." In Game 1 Bulls point guard Derrick Rose torched theCeltics for 36 points, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's NBA record for most pointsin a playoff debut. Rose's weapon of choice was the pick-and-roll—oneunofficial count had the Bulls running it 41 times, often at the expense of thehulking Davis, who was slow to seal off Rose's path to the basket. After thegame, as a despondent Davis sat slumped in front of his locker, Garnett, one ofthe best pick-and-roll defenders in the league, towered over him, barkingencouragement and assuring Davis (in colorful language) that he would performbetter the next game. Sure enough, Davis was a step quicker in Game 2, and theCeltics held Rose to 10 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
Still, there isonly so much help Garnett can provide in a well-tailored suit. Without hispresence in the low post, the Celtics' offense is dependent on the perimetershooting 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 andAllen have been inconsistent. In the first two games Pierce shot 40%, and hemissed a likely game-winning free throw in Game 1. Allen's electric 30-pointperformance in Game 2 balanced his four points and 1-for-12 shooting in theopener. This unevenness shows why Boston's championship prospects cloudsignificantly without Garnett. "Kevin is our run stopper," says Rivers."With him there we had the option of throwing it in the post and lettinghim swing it around, or take it himself and score. We could control the pace.Without him we have trouble controlling it."
He's missed ondefense as well. In games played with Garnett in the regular season, theCeltics gave up 90.8 points per game; without him that number ballooned to99.4. This is because Garnett is a master at seeing where a play is going andpositioning his teammates accordingly. Also, he just plain scares people."There are a lot of [soft players] in this league," says an EasternConference coach. "And Garnett intimidates every one of them."
One can onlyimagine how that intimidation would have affected the Bulls, who have threestarters 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, thenabruptly bolted to his feet.
"Hey,man," he said, to no one in particular, "how long is the media inhere?"
"Calmdown," said Tyrus Thomas, 22.
After making aquick lap around the room, Noah made a beeline for the locker room door, goingto the court.
"A lot ofyoung fellas here," said reserve guard Lindsey Hunter, who entered theseries with 141 games of playoff experience to Noah's none. "Lot of pent-upenergy."
But when Chicagotook the floor, that energy suddenly looked like a good thing. In Game 1 Roseoutdueled Rondo as the Bulls pulled out a 105--103 overtime win. Chicago showedsimilar 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 bestUConn player to ever play." Gordon extended the debate in a thrilling Game4. With his team trailing by three late in the first overtime, Gordon knockeddown an impossible fading three-pointer with Pierce hanging off his rightshoulder. That pushed the game into a second overtime, in which the Bullsoutscored Boston 11--8 to snatch a series-tying victory. "We have someresiliency 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 haveindeed come a long way this season. Chicago spent the first half toward thebottom of the standings while rookie coach Vinny Del Negro and his staff wrotea playbook from scratch. "We had no system, just a lot of ideas," saysassistant Del Harris. "The assistants had never coached together, and Vinnyhad never coached at all. As we learned the strengths and weaknesses of ourplayers, we found a style that worked."
They built theattack around Rose, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. Besides being a provenwinner, having led his Illinois high school team to back-to-back state titlesand Memphis to within a free throw of an NCAA championship, he proved early onthat he was capable of being the Bulls' focal point. Rose's penetratingskills—his speed and power resemble those of a running back—createdopportunities for hyperactive big men Thomas and Noah and opened up the floorfor Gordon's outside shooting. The midseason acquisition from the Kings ofveterans John Salmons (who would ease the loss of forward Luol Deng to aseason-ending leg injury) and center Brad Miller encouraged the Bulls toentertain playoffs hopes for this season. Even after Chicago was blown out by21 points at home in Game 3, Noah declared, "We think we can win rightnow."
Sunday's win onlyemboldened Chicago's brash center. As he reclined in a chair in front of hislocker after the game, Noah wondered aloud why it was Boston's adversity thateveryone was focused on. "People underestimate how much we have gonethrough," said Noah. "[In January] our [owner] called our season adisaster. We lost six in a row and were booed at home. Three months ago if youasked anyone in Chicago if we would be 2--2 with Boston in the playoffs, Idon't think anyone would have told you that could happen." A few doors downthe hallway a shell-shocked Celtics team struggled to come up with answers. Onething they do know: If they ultimately win the series, their difficulty ingetting past Chicago will serve as a reminder of the hard road ahead. And itwill all but guarantee that they'll keep hearing questions about Kevin.
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