BOSTON – Kevin Garnett is not counting on getting any days off as the Celtics continue their march through the playoffs. The Celtics cannot afford to give him one. With Paul Pierce and Ray Allen battling injuries, epic performances by Garnett may need to be the norm, not the exception, for Boston.
Garnett seized that responsibility in the closeout game of the first-round series against the Hawks, and he carried that same high level of play over to the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series on Saturday, when the Celtics escaped with a 92-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. He has the will, and more importantly the favorable matchup, to make such performances a regular occurrence.
At least, that appears to be the Celtics' plan.
"We're going to ride Kevin all the way until his wheels fall off," Pierce said.
Although there was no foolish owner running his mouth this time, Garnett put up a line of 29 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots as the Celtics took a 1-0 lead over the Sixers in the best-of-seven series. Sixers center Spencer Hawes, a solid defensive and rebounding center, was helpless against another game for the ages by Garnett. Sixers head coach Doug Collins recognized the mismatch, but he felt he had few options with Garnett playing like he was.
"Well, I don't know what else we could have done," Collins said. "You have to pick your poison. Kevin is playing great. He's hitting all these tough shots, fading shots off the glass. He's playing as well as I've ever seen him play. My hat's off to him, but I don't think there was anything we did poorly with him. I just think, sometimes you get trumped."
Celtics head coach Doc Rivers was even more conservative with Garnett's minutes than usual in the first three quarters. Rivers admitted he had a feeling he would need every millisecond he could squeeze out of Garnett in the fourth quarter, which is why Garnett began the final frame having played only 26 minutes in the game thus far.
Garnett never left the floor in the last 12 minutes, when the Celtics turned up their defensive intensity and held Philadelphia to 8-for-21 shooting while outrebounding the Sixers 15-8. The enhanced defensive energy funneled straight from Garnett, who is more than the Celtics' heart and soul at the moment. He is also their brain, their backbone, their eyes and their ears.
"He's making it so hard when he's off the floor for those 10 or 12 minutes," Rivers said. "You're in panic mode right now. That's an area we're going to have to improve, because he's going to have to sit for 10 or 12 minutes a game. Our plus-minus with him off the floor right now is horrendous, but when he's on the floor, he's doing everything for us."
The schedule-makers did the Celtics few favors in this round. The teams play every other day for the first four games before a two-day respite between Games 4 and 5. That would not leave much time for Garnett to rest if he has to carry the Celtics like this throughout the series, and Rivers surely hopes that is not the case.
If that is the only way for the Celtics to prevail, though, Garnett may need to prepare for at least three more performances like Saturday's. It may not be the most diverse existence, but it may be necessary for him and the Celtics to get the desired result.
"I have no life at this point," Garnett said. "I go home, get treatment, come back in here, study tape. No life at all. This is what it is."
Garnett's on-court life is becoming just as monotonous: Carry the Celtics on offense, attack the glass, direct the defense. Repeat as needed — and the Celtics appear to need it badly.