The 2007-08 Celtics were worthy champions, and the following year, they were juggernauts. Boston began the season 27-2 and stood as favorites to repeat until a late February game in Utah, when Kevin Garnett leapt for an alley-oop, came up short and landed favoring his right leg. He suffered a strange knee injury, one that combined sudden trauma with years of accumulated abuse.
Garnett has never been the same since. Having a star suffer an injury like this is part of the risk a team takes in building around aging core players. Attached to that risk is the reality that the healthy core players get older and less dynamic as the injured one recovers. The Celtics in February 2009 stood as the league’s best defensive team and one of its seven or eight best offensive teams. They had a huge margin for error. They needed relatively little luck or favorable matchups in their pursuit of a second title.
The margin for error shrunk dramatically on that February night and has kept shrinking since. The Celtics, like most teams, are going to need luck and some matchup breaks in order to win four playoff series in a row. Since that 2008-09 season, the question going into every Celtics game and playoff series has been: Can this team squeeze out enough offense, somehow, in order to allow its all-world defense to carry them across the finish line? Boston ranked fifth in points per possession in 2008-09. Their season-by-season rankings since: 15th, 18th, and this season, an ugly 25th.
And so Boston enters every seven-game slog trying to manufacture just enough points so that the equation tips its way. Boston knows its defense is going to be there each night, built on the back of Garnett, one of the half-dozen best defenders in NBA history, and via the brilliant basketball minds of coaches in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. Every series, we see the Celtics look at names of the big men on the opposing rosters and ask themselves: “Do the matchups allow for Kevin to give us eight or 10 or 12 points in the post every night?” Because with a defense like this, that’s all it takes — an extra half-dozen points wrung from some advantage in height, bulk, speed or ferocity Garnett happens to have against a particular opponent. Read More…