Celtics coach Doc Rivers is not exactly Gregg Popovich, who cuts his veterans’ playing time so liberally he has drawn NBA commissioner David Stern‘s ire, but neither is he Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls coach for whom “rest” is dirtier than any other four-letter word. Rivers recognized years ago that he needed to protect his aging All-Stars, chief among them Garnett, who has never met a day off he liked. So Rivers learned to be selective with his requests for the Big Ticket to take a rest.
Rivers has found that to be less of a problem this year. A little more than a week after conceding to his coach’s request to sit out a game in Phoenix, Garnett willingly took off from Sunday’s optional practice. He was back on the court Monday at the Celtics’ practice facility, but the mere fact that Garnett accepted Rivers’ offers without kicking and screaming spoke volumes about how the team and player are being realistic about what can be expected of the 36-year-old big man.
“I don’t know if it’s smart or not, to be honest,” Rivers said. “He has given us more. We’ve given him some rest. We’ve done practices off more than we ever have for him. In the past, you couldn’t even broach that subject with him. This year he wants the days off, so I think he’s gotten smarter in that regard. That, to me, is probably the reason he’s been able to play in more games.”
Through 58 games, Garnett has played the second-most minutes of any Celtics player and has yet to miss a game due to injury. He is on pace to average more than 30 minutes per game for the third consecutive year and is within striking distance of posting a player-efficiency rating of more than 20 for the third straight year as well.
(If so, he would be part of select company. Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are the only players within four years of Garnett’s age who have PER’s higher than 19.)
Garnett was not in much mood to talk about rest — the only thing worse than getting it, probably, is talking about it — and he did not look like someone taking it easy before he took the court for practice. The 18th-year veteran already had a thin veneer of sweat when he spoke with reporters late Monday morning.
Still, the Celtics must be doing something right, because Garnett has looked fresh even when he has been pushed to the limit. He has played more than 40 minutes in a game three times this season, all of those games going multiple overtimes, yet at other times the Celtics have been judicious with his playing time. Rivers limited him to only 11 minutes in the first half of a loss in Charlotte, clearly deciding that possibly getting an early lead and a runaway victory were not worth burning out Garnett on the night after a triple-overtime win over the Nuggets. Rivers had a similarly quick hook for Garnett last week in Los Angeles, when the coach gave the center just 24 minutes of floor time in a loss to the Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back.
Closing in on two decades in professional basketball, Garnett still bristles at the suggestion that he is getting old. But whether he is sparing himself the extra strain on his body or begrudgingly giving in to the team’s requests, Garnett clearly understands that some adjustments are worthwhile. Come June, he may even be thanking Rivers for the time off.
Then again, probably not.