Garnett's Completely Off the Charts Defensive Impact This Postseason

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I think I've finally stopped having panic attack flashbacks after Wade's way-too-close-for-my-sanity shot for the win last night. I'm nervous and excited and happy and anxious and can't-wait-for-the-game-to-HURRY-UP-AND-GET-HERE leading up to tomorrow's pivotal game 5. But sometimes...

Sometimes you have to just take a step back and realize when you are watching something great. Something that you just really might never see again.

This entire Celtics team is just making me so proud right now. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are fighting through injuries that really should have forced them to sit, and are thriving against the absolute best individual opponents that this game can offer right now. Keyon Dooling has gone from one of the most hated players on this team to a suddenly strong contributing vet. Brandon Bass has had his moments where he's showed his worth. Mickael Pietrus had the two huge boards last night. And Rajon Rondo...what can even be said about Rondo right now that everyone else isn't already saying? He's stepped up huge, picked up the walking-triple-double mantle that he seems to dust off in the postseason, and is really taking control of this team on offense.

That said.

You HAVE to recognize what Kevin Garnett is doing on defense this postseason.

Garnett has gotten a lot of attention in the second half of the season and these playoffs for his consistently stellar play. Many pundits point out that he's playing center for the first time and doing it well. The 20/10 average through the playoffs has gotten some notice. KG got a bunch of pub the other night for playing so well in the post on offense. And those are all really good things, and I'm glad that folks are noticing.

But seriously. What he's doing on defense is blowing all of that out of the water right now.

I've been hearing for awhile about how Garnett is leading the NBA in postseason +/-. Doc has mentioned it a couple of times, it's been noted a couple of times in passing on Sportscenter. But it wasn't until after Game 3 on Friday that I really looked into it. Here is the post that I saw that caught my eye, from a poster named bs_and_cs on another message board:

The Heat shot 38% with KG on the floor, 85% with KG on the bench....yes you read that right, 85%.

Later that night I saw that corroborated on TV, when NBA TV reported the same numbers (except the Heat actually shot ONLY 84% when KG was on the bench).

Then, last night, it happened again. I was watching NBA TV in the aftermath of the overtime win, and they reported that the Heat had shot about 35% in Game 4 when KG was in the game, but 75% with him on the bench.

So then, I started doing the math...through the two wins, the Celtics were holding the Heat in the mid-upper 30% range with Garnett in the game...but were allowing the Heat to score at roughly an 80% clip with Garnett on the bench. To put it mildly, that seemed like a big difference.

So, I went on over to and checked out the results through 17 games...

  • The Celtics' defense is allowing 89.72 points/100 possessions when Garnett is on the court (the #1 mark in the NBA)
  • The Celtics' defense is allowing 122.44 points/100 possessions when Garnett is off the court (the absolute worst mark in the NBA)

In short, the Celtics' defense is 32.7 points better with Garnett on the floor this postseason than with him off through 17 games and almost 650 minutes on-court. Not only that, but if you follow that link you'll see that it's Garnett and only Garnett that keys the defense. Sometimes with net on/off team ratings you run into a case where there's just a dominant unit and everyone on that unit has great and similar ratings. Not here. After Garnett, the next best Celtics are:

Avery Bradley (defense 11.1 points better in about 250 minutes before injury)
Marquis Daniels (4.4 points better in 80 minutes)
Mickeal Pietrus (2.37 points better in 323 minutes)


Now, let me put this in context because I know there are some that don't love the +/- approach. The playoffs, by definition, are going to be a smaller sample size than the regular season and sample size is very important with +/- analysis. There aren't any other strong help defensive bigs on the Celtics, which could perhaps make Garnett's influence on the defense larger. And Garnett, as great as he's been on defense, couldn't do it alone if the perimeter players weren't playing their part as well.

But that said.

By the time you reach the conference finals, you're starting to pile up a large enough sample size that it's worth at least paying attention to. The issue that you run into with small sample size is that the noise and variance can be too big. But when one player's marks are so, SO much of an outlier like Garnett's are, the noise doesn't make as much of a difference. Garnett's mark through 17 games is so off the chart that...ok, let's try to get a feel for just how ridiculous Garnett's defensive marks are.

  • Basketball-reference has +/- data back to 2007, and before that I used to peruse regularly for seasons back to 2002. In that decade of seasons, I've never heard of ANYONE having an on/off defensive +/- through at least the Conference Finals as large as Garnett's (the only one even close that I can think of is Ben Wallace in '04, whose on/off was up around 28 I believe).
  • I've never heard of ANYONE being the difference between a team having the #1 rated defense and the dead-last rated defense in the playoffs.
  • And I've never heard of ANYONE having an on/off defensive +/- so completely, absurdly larger than his other teammates.

Garnett is having a strong playoffs on offense, as a leader, and as a competitor. But what he's doing on defense would put him in the midst of one of the greatest postseason defensive runs that the NBA has ever seen. Right now, as a fan, I'm much more interested in beating the Heat two more times and seeing the squad bring home #18 not long after. But again...sometimes you just have to take a step back and recognize when you might be witnessing history.

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