BOSTON – Privately, those surrounding the Boston Celtics take a deep breath, sigh and shrug. Essentially, they're telling you: Who knows? Everyone's uneasy, bordering on fearful. Kevin Garnett's gimpy knee holds hostage the Celtics' chances for a championship defense.
"I'd be very, very surprised if Kevin Garnett is not playing in Game 1 of the playoffs," Doc Rivers said on Wednesday. Garnett's going to be back before the regular season is over, the coach says, and they're going to have him for the playoffs. Nevertheless, the speculation on K.G.'s knee is growing the way that it did for Tom Brady's in Boston.
"The speculation is rampant and wild," Rivers said.
If Garnett comes back, there's still an unmistakable worry: Can he hold up? The Celtics have conceded the top seed to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and needed double overtime to beat the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday and reclaim the second spot in the Eastern Conference. Unless this rest can push Garnett back to 100 percent – and no one expects that – the Celtics are without a puncher's chance to beat the Cavaliers.
Finally, Garnett has come to understand this, too. The toughest guy in the gym has stepped back, stepped down and heeded reason. Once, Garnett fought management and coaches on everything with his body. He never wanted to sit, never wanted to stop pushing, but those days are done. Rivers took a long look at Garnett dragging that right knee in a loss to the Orlando Magic last week and told K.G. to sit until the final week of the regular season.
Only, Garnett hasn't fought Rivers on it. K.G. was hurting the Celtics, and he knew it. He's 32 years old and the credibility of a championship – the wisdom of his years – conspired to convince him that he had to heed the long picture. To be the tough guy, to play through the pain, benefits no one but LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Garnett missed a month, tried to return and goes out again now. He has been so durable in his career, an elastic man and this thing must scare him.
It isn't going away, and it isn't getting better.
"I think he's been much better this time around," Rivers said. Much better about listening to his coach, his body and taking the time away. "In the beginning of this, it was, 'I'm getting back, I'm getting back.' And I think, maybe sitting out the first stint, allowed him to take a deep breath. Most veteran players start looking at the big picture."
The big picture is clear for the Celtics: There is no tomorrow. From the beginning, they believed they had a three-year window to win titles with Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Boston won it all a season ago, but advancing in this Eastern Conference becomes a treacherous proposition. Garnett is everything to these Celtics. Pierce was the NBA Finals MVP and Allen is an All-Star, but that 17th NBA championship was born on the back of defense.
The Celtics will be fortunate to get past the Magic with Garnett struggling on that knee. Without Garnett himself, the Cavs will destroy Boston. There's a spur in the back of the right knee rubbing against the tendon, Celtics GM Danny Ainge said. The pain has been excruciating for Garnett, and playing through it turned into a nightmare.
"The reality of it is that these are complex situations," Ainge told WEEI Radio in Boston. "K.G. is not comfortable, and sometimes these things go away. Sometimes they take a little longer. But no doctor can go in there and say this is going to be better and in 14 days we'll be all fine.
For now, the Celtics have turned to Kendrick Perkins, whose season has been worthy of consideration for the All-Defense team. Yet Garnett is the traffic cop for these Celtics, the inspirational soul. The Celtics were flat for much of Wednesday night, fortunate to spare themselves a loss. In the overtime, Rivers confessed to peeking at the scoreboard and noticing that the Orlando Magic had lost to Toronto. Seeding, he swears, isn't nearly as important as getting K.G. back, and getting him right. For Boston, they need that second spot. They need to hold off Orlando.
There are no guarantees in the Garden these days, just guesses. No one knows about that knee, and the Celtics' chances for repeating as NBA champions have never been so shaky. "If we're healthy out there, I'm very confident in this basketball team," Rivers said.
Only, Boston isn't healthy because K.G. is a long way from his old self. Garnett sits now and prays they can get him right for the playoffs, right for one more run. He needs to be himself again, and maybe that still isn't enough with possible Game 7s looming in Orlando and Cleveland to get back to the Finals. Around here, they shrug and sigh when it comes to that gimpy knee. No one knows. No one knows at all.