Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal aren't getting any younger, as Celtics fans have been reminded since last season. Boston's seasoned frontcourt pair are posting statistics well below their career marks, which once placed them among MVP-caliber talent.
Beyond the obvious drops in scoring output, though, the veteran big men have been as effective as a 35-year-old who has logged 1,211 NBA games (Garnett) and a 33-year-old with 901 games on his resume (O'Neal) can be expected.
Garnett and O'Neal provided ample evidence Monday that they are still capable defenders by holding Magic center Dwight Howard to 18 points on 4-for-15 shooting. The Magic's 87-56 defeat set new franchise lows in multiple areas, starting with two 10-point quarters and a 24.6 percent field goal percentage.
The Celtics challenged every Magic shot and forced 25 turnovers, but their real success on defense started before Howard even touched the ball. Garnett and O'Neal forced Howard out of his favorite spots, and their defensive positioning was a key to the Magic's historic loss, despite Howard's version of events.
"I rushed shots," Howard was quoted as saying. "It had nothing to do with the defense of Kevin Garnett or anybody else. When you rush it on the post, you tend to miss shots. It's just about being patient."
"It just wasn't a good night for us," he also said. "We have a game [Tuesday]. We'll bounce back and we'll have a better one."
It's interesting Howard should mention Tuesday's game, which is against Indiana, because the Pacers have their own prototypical big man who is familiar with the Celtics' refusal to give up positioning on defense.
Roy Hibbert, a 7-foot-2 behemoth, is sixth in the NBA in field goal percentage, hitting better than 54 percent of his shots. Against O'Neal (mostly) and Garnett (sometimes), Hibbert put up two 5-for-15 shooting performances this season. The Pacers won both games against the Celtics — including a 97-83 debacle on Jan. 14 — but not because of Hibbert, who in addition to his 10-for-30 field goal shooting also totaled three free throw attempts and six fouls in the two games.
How have Garnett and O'Neal (and to some extent backup Greg Stiemsma) shut down two of the NBA's best post players, given the reality that neither defender has as much lift as he used to? It's been all about positioning.
Here are five Magic possessions I could find images of from the third quarter on Monday. Check out where Howard is positioned when he gets the ball — or doesn't get the ball:
–With O'Neal leaning into his back, Howard caught the ball a long stride beyond the block. Unable to budge O'Neal, Howard passed to a teammate.
–As Howard came off a screen, O'Neal met him at the free throw line and muscled him across the foul lane, leading to a staring contest.
–In a matchup Howard should have dominated, Stiemsma did a decent job of preventing an easy shot. Stiemsma fouled Howard, who made one of two free throws.
–Again with Stiemsma covering him, Howard tried to face up. He took two large steps across the paint and rimmed out a hook shot.
–In a similar situation to the O'Neal play above, Stiemsma aggressively denied Howard on a screen-and-roll. Howard never got the ball.
Because the Internet is a fickle place, it was difficult to find images from the fourth quarter, when Garnett covered Howard on several possessions. Rest assured, Garnett did many of the same things, forcing Howard to post up even farther from the hoop than O'Neal and Stiemsma did.
Although 16 games is a small sample size, this is more proof that Garnett and O'Neal are still playing at an effective level on defense. O'Neal is grabbing nearly two more rebounds per game than he did last season, and his defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions on the court) is at an eight-year low. Garnett's defensive rating isn't quite as low as in his unforgettable 2007-08 campaign, but it's four points lower than in 2009-10, when the Celtics made their most recent NBA Finals run.
This is yet another reason why the persistent complaints about the Kendrick Perkins trade miss the mark. The Celtics are fine down low on the defensive end. The Celtics' struggles have far more to do with the absence of a consistent post threat on offense than with a lack of defensive toughness. O'Neal is good for a couple of putbacks and short jumpers, while Garnett is basically a 7-foot spot-up shooter.
None of this should necessarily translate into a 31-point drubbing, though. The Magic's downfall was the inability of Howard's supporting cast to force the Celtics to focus as much of their defensive attention elsewhere. Ryan Anderson went scoreless and Jameer Nelson barely was able to advance the ball past half court against Avery Bradley. The Celtics were able to grind the Magic's offense to a halt and gradually push Howard farther and farther from the basket, something they wouldn't have been able to do if the Magic were knocking down 3-pointers and messing with Boston's defensive rotations.
Expect the Celtics to try to do more of the same when they face Orlando again Thursday, but don't bet on another 56-point outing. Shooters can get hot just as suddenly as they got cold, and dominant players like Howard eventually overwhelm even the most physical defense.
Screen shots via YouTube/crismarteesacdalan