BOSTON – Kevin Garnett(notes) walked out of the TD Banknorth Garden alone on that night in mid-May, his step carrying a slight limp. He didn't say a word, but it was clear he was burning inside. The Boston Celtics' chances at a repeat championship had just ended, and Garnett had been unable to do anything about it.
Garnett isn't a "what if" guy. He doesn't spend much time dwelling on the past or the hypothetical. Yet even K.G. couldn't help but wonder if the Celtics' season would have ended differently had he been healthy.
The reality? That stung. With Garnett stranded on the sideline while his right knee ached with bone spurs, the Celtics were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs after having two opportunities to win the series. Their dreams of back-to-back titles vanished.
"Like everybody else, I was very [mad]," Garnett said. "[Mad]. Very [mad]. Very [mad]. Very [mad]."
The Celtics face the Magic on Friday for the first time since their Game 7 loss. It's clear they have yet to shake the bitter memories. The Celtics, in spite of their injuries (Leon Powe(notes) also was sidelined) and fatigue, took a 3-2 lead in their series. They lost Game 6, then were hammered 101-82 at home by the Magic in Game 7.
"It leaves a bitter taste in our mouth," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But I thought they were the better team. Could we have done things different or better? I hope we could've. But we didn't and we didn't win."
Would the Celtics have won had Garnett been healthy enough to play?
There were constant rumors Garnett would miraculously return to help at some point during the playoffs. For the Celtics, however, there was no Willis Reed moment. Rather, Garnett helplessly watched as he focused on getting the best possible medical advice.
"I wasn't happy about my situation – very tough for me," he said.
"I didn't hear none of that [speculation] but I pretty much listened to my body and went through all kinds of formal testing and met different specialists and all kinds of stuff," he added. "I had no idea what was being said and what people thought of; I was more in tune to what I was doing."
Garnett is still recovering from offseason surgery, but he'll be back on the floor Friday to face the Magic. He's averaged 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, and still drags his leg on occasion. Against the Magic, he'll be tasked with chasing versatile forward Rashard Lewis(notes).
Garnett said he's "not even where I want to be at, at this point." But Rivers is optimistic K.G. will be back to his old self by the time the playoffs begin.
"It's getting there," Rivers said. "It's not there yet. He's healthy. … I'll take his game right now, as would 98 percent of the league."
The Celtics and Magic both rank as East powers, but they also look a lot different from when they last met. The Celtics have added some much-needed depth in Rasheed Wallace(notes) and Marquis Daniels(notes). Meanwhile, Glen Davis(notes) – who had a breakthrough performance against Orlando in the postseason – is out with a hand injury. The Magic have replaced Hedo Turkoglu(notes), Courtney Lee(notes), Rafer Alston(notes) and Tony Battie(notes) with Vince Carter(notes), Brandon Bass(notes), Ryan Anderson(notes) and Jason Williams(notes). Magic guard Jameer Nelson(notes), just like in the playoffs, is out with a knee injury.
The Celtics' respect for the Magic seems much stronger than when they were ousted months ago.
"As far as we're concerned, they are the favorite, we're the second favorite and Cleveland is the third on the results of last year," Rivers said. "It will be good to see where we are at."
Clippers need boost from Gordon?
The Los Angeles Clippers entered Friday having lost five of six games, increasing speculation about coach Mike Dunleavy’s job security. Two NBA sources with knowledge of the situation said a firing didn’t appear imminent – at least until Dunleavy is given a chance to coach the team once guard Eric Gordon(notes) returns.
Gordon has missed the past six games with a groin injury, but could be back as soon as Monday. The Clippers’ combination of Gordon, Baron Davis(notes), Marcus Camby(notes), Chris Kaman(notes) and Rasual Butler(notes) outscored opponents 223-184 during 99 minutes together. Even in most of the four games the Clippers lost with Gordon, they were competitive.
Given the team’s numerous injuries and the $10 million Dunleavy is owed over this season and next – top pick Blake Griffin(notes) has yet to play and Kareem Rush(notes) was just lost for the season with a torn knee ligament – Clippers owner Donald Sterling has so far held off making a move.
“Donald is frustrated, but still being patient with Gordon out,” one source said.
Still, given the difficulty in predicting Sterling’s whims, no one can be certain what or when he will decide to do.
The Clippers play Denver and Minnesota at home, then hit the road for games against Indiana and Detroit. If Sterling decides he wants a new coach, Dunleavy could be left in place as general manager. John Lucas(notes) or Kim Hughes, both assistants, would be candidates to take over on an interim basis.
While Gordon should be back next week, the Clippers still don’t have a target date for the return of the other player who could help end their slide. Griffin continues to recover from a stress fracture in his left kneecap.
And don’t try telling Griffin about Danny Manning. He doesn’t want to hear about the Clippers’ string of bad luck or the supposed Clipper Curse.
Yes, Griffin is sidelined by a knee injury just like Manning, the Clippers’ No. 1 pick in 1988, was sidelined by a knee injury his rookie year. But Griffin sees his situation as just that – an injury. Nothing more, nothing less. The NBA’s first overall pick in the June draft doesn’t consider himself part of the franchise’s haunted history.
The Clippers’ drama “was in the past,” Griffin said. “I haven’t been a part of anything, and a lot of guys here haven’t been a part of that. I’m concentrating on getting this thing better.”
Griffin has his work cut out for him. But if can get healthy – and stay healthy – he could help improve the team’s fortunes. His biggest challenge now is not overworking himself. He swims, but has refrained from any weight-bearing physical activities. He isn’t expected to get another MRI until the end of the month.
“A lot of people have been positive and telling me to just wait it out, don’t rush, don’t do anything that will further delay the process,” Griffin said. “Obviously, I want to play. Having not played at all makes it even worse. I just try to keep myself busy and understand why I’m not rushing.”
The Clippers at least feel fortunate that Griffin, who also was injured during the offseason, got some experience in the preseason. His best performance came against the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan(notes) when he had 23 points and seven rebounds.
“There shouldn’t be anything confidence-wise for him to know,” Dunleavy recently said. “He can say, ‘I’ve gone up against Duncan in the preseason. I’ve gone up against [Carlos Boozer].’(notes) He’s gone up against really good players. It might take him a little bit rust-wise, but not too much.”
Griffin calls his injury a “minor setback” and thinks that missing two months won’t be a big deal in the grand scheme of his career. Baron Davis also had some advice for the rookie.
“Do you want to be in Hall of Fame? If it takes six weeks and it increases your chances for the Hall of Fame, than do that,” Davis said. “Don’t try to come back in three weeks and not make it.”
White men can jump
Budinger has already had several highlight reel dunks this season and has impressed teammates in practice with some of his more creative attempts, including one where he somehow taps the ball off the rim then the backboard before flushing it.
“I’ve got a few tricks,” said Budinger, who is a former high school volleyball star. “I can do some stuff.”
Budinger remembers Barry’s memorable free-throw line dunk at San Antonio’s Alamodome: “He had bounce back then. He was one of those guys that could really just glide.”
The Golden State Warriors are optimistic that the Stephen Jackson(notes) trade will make it easier for them to re-sign Anthony Morrow(notes) at the end of the season. Morrow will be a restricted free agent and Raja Bell’s(notes) contract will be coming off the books.
The Cleveland Cavaliers offered to send Delonte West(notes) and do a sign-and-trade deal with Wally Szczerbiak(notes) in exchange for Jackson. The Warriors, however, didn’t want to take on West with his ongoing legal and personal issues.
Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo(notes) is shooting an abysmal 25 percent from the free-throw line. Teammate Ray Allen(notes) says Rondo has some problems with his mechanics, but Allen is trying not to say too much to keep from confusing Rondo.
“He told me if [my advice] didn’t help out then he wasn’t talking to nobody,” said Allen, who is shooting 89.3 percent from the free-throw line. “He’s really just finding his way. He’s really watching what I’m doing from the free-throw line and watching Paul [Pierce]. You know Paul; he wishes his free throws in when he starts getting the little funky arm [movement].”
Considering Rondo’s position as point guard, the Celtics obviously need him to improve. Rondo entered this season shooting 63.5 percent from the line in his three-year career.
“He does have the ball in his hands a lot,” Allen said. “He’s going to the hole a lot. He does get fouled a lot, so he will be on the free-throw line. So it’s something he’s got to come to terms with in how to get there and step up confidently.”