BOSTON – Kevin Garnett(notes) still barks and bellows on the court, clasps his hands and yet the roar now rings hollow. Down the floor and back again, the Boston Celtics star drags his battered knee. He has dragged it from one season into the next, and now comes a growing sector within the organization that wonders whether Garnett should be further resting the surgically repaired knee.
What no one here wants is the season ending the way it did a year ago, with a broken-down Garnett unfit or unavailable for the playoffs. What no one here wants is this Hall of Fame core never getting a true chance to raise that 18th championship banner.
The doctors have cleared Garnett, and he plays on, but multiple sources say there’s a sentiment that maybe his hyperextended right knee would be best suited to sit out longer.
Nevertheless, it’s never easy telling Garnett “no,” telling him to back off, because he’s so relentless and resolved to push past the pain, push to a final, gasping championship chase.
Most of all, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers must reach clarity on several issues between now and the trade deadline on Feb. 18:
Do the Celtics keep Garnett on the floor?
Almost two seasons ago, Allen destroyed the Los Angeles Lakers with his shooting, and Garnett was downright dominant as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. The Celtics had that modern-day Big Three, a rapidly developing Rajon Rondo(notes) and a belief they could recast the franchise as a dynasty. Looking back, they must be grateful for banking that one title. Most of all that softens the basketball angst of what might have been, of a franchise revival that never rose to a dynasty.
Allen missed a long 3-pointer to end a 90-89 loss to the Lakers on Sunday, and, together, he, Garnett and Paul Pierce(notes) trudged through the groans and into the Garden tunnel. There’s a chance there are no more big games for the Big Three. All together, this run could be over. Ainge has such immense decisions to make, and they must come sooner than later.
The Celtics have initiated trade proposals on Allen, multiple league sources say, and Boston is searching for a younger, less expensive guard and an expiring contract. This way they can find a replacement for the 34-year-old Allen without losing him and his $20 million expiring contract for nothing in free agency this summer. Only, there isn’t a shooting guard available who’s Allen’s peer. This threatens a perilous choice between transitioning for the future and refusing to compromise a chance to win a title now.
Allen is privately resigned to the fact that it’s unlikely the Celtics will want to re-sign him this summer. He’s believed to be intrigued with the possibility of joining the Miami Heat or staying close to his Connecticut home and signing with the New York Knicks. Nevertheless, Allen wants to stay a Celtic and that’s never wavered. Yet the sheer economics make it improbable unless he’s willing to cost himself several million dollars next year.
Yes, Allen would be difficult to replace for this season, but the Celtics can overcome that easier than Garnett gimping around the floor as a shell of his old self. He’s been in the NBA 15 seasons and played more than 40,000 minutes. He’s an old 33.
Where the Celtics were once a dominant defensive team, unforgiving protectors of the rim, Garnett is forever a step slow, a body unable to get where the mind knows it wants to go. “He’s just had to adjust his game,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “That’s part of getting long in the tooth and having a few injuries and some things just don’t work as well.”
In the final minutes of the Celtics’ three consecutive losses to the NBA’s elite – Orlando, Atlanta and L.A. – the failures have been unmistakable and jarring to Rivers. “We’ve been able in the past to lean on defense when we go cold offensively,” Rivers said, and now that’s gone. In the final minutes to the Hawks, Rivers sighed, “They scored every time. … The Orlando game, down the stretch, they scored every time. And tonight …”
The Celtics will be better when Marquis Daniels(notes) returns, yes, but now Rasheed Wallace(notes) is playing too many minutes to compensate for K.G.’s injury. Boston can act tough and physical, like popping Pau Gasol(notes) in the chest over and over Sunday, but what does that do?
As one NBA coach privately says, “They’re just not as nasty as they were” when they won the title. “And they don’t rebound.” No, Boston never did replace James Posey(notes), P.J. Brown(notes) and Leon Powe(notes) off that ’08 championship bench. The Celtics coaches insist the development of Rondo and Kendrick Perkins(notes) – whom they believe is the best low-post defender in the league – can still pick up for Garnett’s fading fury.
“The other guys are better defenders,” Rivers said, “so hopefully [Garnett] doesn’t have to do as much.”
Because he can’t anymore, and that ought to be clear to everyone with the Celtics. Garnett is holding on, holding tight and trying to get to the finish line for one more championship. Only now, the Celtics must ask themselves: How much longer can they watch him drag that knee up and down the floor, dragging the last gasp of an 18th banner with it?