It is sort of amazing, given Kevin Garnett‘s reputation for being a bit handsy on defense, that he only fouled out of one game all season and was whistled for at least five personal fouls just five times. In 68 games this season, Garnett was called for just 154 fouls, or an average of less than 2.3 fouls per game.
Think about that, Celtics fans, next time you start to whine about the leeway the referees give LeBron James.
Yet the Celtics now head into Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Knicks having been forced to play without Garnett for long stretches due to his persistent foul trouble. In each of the first two games, Garnett finished with five fouls, and the Knicks’ ability to keep him in foul trouble has been a key in their 2-0 lead as the series heads to Boston.
Paul Pierce is the beloved captain and Jeff Green is the X-factor, but Garnett is the most important pierce for the Celtics. Any time he is off the court, or forced to play with less aggressiveness on either end of the floor, benefits Boston’s opponent.
Although Garnett ended both games with the same number of fouls, the issue haunted the Celtics in different ways each time. Celtics coach Doc Rivers sent Garnett to the bench for three crucial minutes in the fourth quarter of Game 1, causing the Celtics to become disjointed at the worst possible time in a close loss. Foul trouble hit Garnett much earlier in Game 2, when he picked up two early personals and took his first seat at the 8:39 mark of the first quarter, well ahead of schedule. The Celtics’ deficit grew from three points to six points with Garnett on the bench — not a devastating number, but still six points the Celtics would have liked to have back in their putrid second half.
The Celtics’ struggles without Garnett are nothing new. This sticks to a trend the team has had since his arrival in 2007, most noticeably in the 2008-09 season, when a season-ending knee injury revealed just how crucial he had become. This season, the Celtics gave up 8.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor. In case the principle of defensive efficiency rating does not immediately click with you, suffice to say the Celtics’ defense is otherworldly when Garnett is on the court and sieve-like when he is off it.
In the absence of Garnett’s sustained defensive dominance, Rivers’ options are limited. Chris Wilcox and Shavlik Randolph got token playing time in Game 2, but the Celtics seem ready to proceed with only Garnett, as well as the surprisingly stout Brandon Bass, as their defensive backbone in the frontcourt. The more adjustments the Celtics try to make, the more the Knicks will push the issue, since nothing is as tempting as a desperate opponent.
The only saving grace for the Celtics might be that, through two games, Garnett has not looked completely comfortable. He did not play at all in the final week of the regular season, so his rhythm and timing could be off. If so, that would actually be a good thing for the Celtics. The quickest way to remedy Garnett’s foul issues is to tighten the defense and make their rotations — that is, Garnett’s rotations — a half-step quicker, so those defensive fouls become offensive ones.
If the Celtics hope to make this a series, they must look within their own ranks. Nobody new will walk through the door of the home locker room prior to Game 3 on Friday. The Celtics’ best hope is for someone familiar to walk through that door, just someone with slightly more bounce in his step.