Garnett labored at times against the Wizards, huffing and puffing his way along the court in the first half as the Celtics held a slim four-point lead going into the break. He found a second wind after halftime, going 3-for-4 from the field in the fourth quarter to help the Celtics seal the win, but he admitted after the game that he still needed these final five regular-season games to rediscover his rhythm.
Without a doubt, Garnett’s condition — along with the play and health of Paul Pierce — will be the primary factor in whether the Celtics make another long postseason run or suffer a premature exit. But in Garnett’s absence, a few of his previously overshadowed teammates stepped in and offered signs that they may be able to contribute once the Celtics inevitably tighten their rotation for the playoffs.
“I know what we have in here,” Garnett said. “I know who’s willing to fight and not going to lay down. I’ll take a bunch of fighters over skilled people any day.”
For the first time in years, Garnett and the Celtics might not have to decide between the two. The Celtics were banged up heading into the playoffs last year, eventually getting back Ray Allen from bone chips in his ankles but losing Avery Bradley to twin shoulder injuries in the process. The year before that, coach Doc Rivers was still trying to figure out his personnel in the aftermath of the Kendrick Perkins trade. And prior to a semi-healthy 2010 (Perkins’ ill-timed knee injury in the NBA Finals aside), the Celtics looked like a juggernaut in 2009 until Garnett’s season-ending injury railroaded their title hopes.
The Celtics are far from injury-free this year, obviously. Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger remain on the shelf, and Leandro Barbosa is now the sidelined property of the Wizards. With the rotation sure to be shortened to eight or nine players in the playoffs, however, Rivers actually could find himself with several lineup possibilities based on matchups and situations.
Rivers has already experimented with the probable starting five for Game 1 in New York or Indiana: Garnett, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Pierce and Avery Bradley. Jason Terry and Courtney Lee figure to be in the mix no matter the opponent. That fills seven of the eight spots teams usually employ in the playoffs.
That eighth spot, and possibly a ninth position in the rotation, is where Rivers has some flexibility. If the Celtics have to face the Pacers’ massive front line, Shavlik Randolph and Chris Wilcox could find themselves with more playing time. If the small-ball Knicks are the opponent, Jordan Crawford or even Terrence Williams could become key contributors. Compared to the status of the Celtics heading into recent postseasons, it is an embarrassment of riches.
“That’s going to be up to Doc, whoever he decides he wants out there,” Pierce said. “The key for us is to develop that consistency over the next week and a half, what we want to do and who we want to be going into the playoffs.”
No matter who fills those final spots, however, the most vital pieces remain the guys at the top of the brochure. Pierce and Garnett make everything run smoother, as Terry told his teammates, because the offense operates through them. Bass went off for 20 points on Sunday, but he readily admitted he was simply capitalizing on the opportunities created by Washington’s focus on Garnett and Pierce. Similarly, Randolph or Wilcox might provide a valuable chance for Garnett to rest and 12 useful fouls, but they will never be suitable replacements for him.
As always, health and rest are the Celtics’ main concerns as their playoff picture comes into focus. As Rivers preps for the playoffs, though, he could see something he has not had on his roster in a while: options.