Sure, they are missing an All-Star point guard and a young forward who never seemed to play like a rookie, and their two best players are closing in on the twilights of their careers. The Celtics have done just enough to give themselves hope, though, and from the looks in their eyes, they still think they can play with anybody once the series start.
Then Jeff Green went down with a thud on Friday, and everybody was reminded of just how tenuous the Celtics’ situation is.
If there was anybody criticizing Doc Rivers‘ decision to rest Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with what were termed ankle injuries in Miami, Green’s cringing expression offered a reminder of why Rivers was right and they were wrong. Green was diagnosed with a bruised left elbow and is not expected to miss any time, which was a relief to the Celtics as they lurch on without Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger. In a perfect world, Pierce and Garnett would suit up like anybody else and earn their six-figure game checks. They would have carried the Celtics through these last four relatively meaningless regular season games and rolled into the playoffs with a good lather already worked up.
This is no perfect world, however. Pushing anyone with nagging injuries or a 1970s date on his birth certificate makes no sense. The best-case scenario in that event is that they would be slightly winded when the playoffs start a week from Saturday. The worst-case scenario became apparent with Green jogging up and down the court, cradling his left arm awkwardly until a traveling violation by Jason Terry finally brought a stoppage of play and gave Green a chance to get some medical attention.
“I don’t think it’s bad, but I don’t know that,” Rivers told reporters. “We’ll know [Saturday]. I don’t even think they’re going to do an X-ray, but I don’t know that, either.”
Green was playing because, despite being just a shade over a year removed from heart surgery, he has no serious medical issues to justify sitting him down. For the young and healthy, playing out the string is still the prudent course. But Green did not return against the Heat as Rivers played it safe. Pierce and Garnett are expected to be back in the lineup Saturday in Orlando, but then Rivers will play it just as conservatively. The alternative is seeing Pierce or Garnett writhing in pain on the court, with something more serious than a bruised elbow to shake off.
While some may fret over seeding, the Celtics have expressed one consistent feeling over the past few weeks, as the playoff picture has come to light: They are confident about facing the Knicks. They believe they are a better team, no matter what the 3-1 head-to-head series or New York’s recent 13-game win streak says. They have a 102-96 win at Madison Square Garden in January that proves they can beat the Knicks, even on the road, when they are whole.
The key, though, is staying whole. Wasting the legs of some aging stars in the middle of April may not end up being devastating, but it could be. With one hard fall, a grimacing Green reinforced the logic of the Celtics’ careful approach as the regular season winds down. The Celtics are trying to be smart, so they can go all-out again once the importance of each game is magnified and injuries are once again worth the risk.