It's hard to draw any conclusions -- good or bad, honestly -- from the way these last couple of weeks have unfolded for the Celtics. They're an entirely different team without Kevin Garnett on the floor, with a completely different style of play on both ends.
The Celtics clinched a playoff spot tonight, beating the Detroit Pistons 98-93 at home while Philadelphia surprisingly lost to bottom-feeding Charlotte, ensuring they will be in the hunt for an Eastern Conference title for the sixth consecutive year this spring. But the team that sealed the deal at the TD Garden tonight bears no resemblance to the team that will tip off the postseason later this month. So on the surface, they didn't really get much out of this one.
Then again, their captain disagrees.
"There's a lot of value in getting some other guys some playing time and some confidence going into the playoffs," Paul Pierce said postgame. "The playoffs is a totally different game -- it's nothing like the regular season -- but at least these guys can go out there, get their feet wet, see some shots go in, rebound the ball and gain some experience while they're out there."
First and foremost among the guys getting their feet wet, obviously, has been Jeff Green. The Celtics' newest wing scoring dynamo had another huge effort against the Pistons, going off for 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting, and perhaps most notable was his fourth-quarter explosion of 11 consecutive Celtic points.
Last time Green had a breakout game, against the Heat two weeks ago, he scored 43 points in the first three quarters and zero in the fourth. This time, he stepped up in crunch time, including a dagger 3 that put the game out of reach with 45 seconds to play.
Whether it's because Garnett's missing or not, there's no denying that Green has had a serious impact.
"I just think he's playing now," coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't think he worries anymore about who's on the floor with him or anything like that. I do think that takes time, though, when you're playing with Paul and Kevin, and [Rajon] Rondo earlier in the year. I think that's hard. You see those three guys, and you tend to think, 'Should I be aggressive?'"
There's no question anymore. Green was the man for the Celtics down the stretch in this one. It shouldn't have been this hard for the C's to beat the hapless Pistons, but it was, and it was Green who kept them afloat offensively when it mattered. Two months ago, this never would have happened, but Green has grown substantially during that time, learning to play alongside Pierce rather than hide behind him.
"I don't try to take over games," Green said. "That's why we've got The Truth. I'm just playing off of him. We're looking for each other, and we're being aggressive together. If it's in my hands, then I'm going to try to make a play, but if it's in his hands, then he'll make one."
The other guy who's seen an increased role is Brandon Bass, who's had to become the Celtics' defensive anchor without KG around. Bass was charged with guarding either Greg Monroe or Andre Drummond for most of the night, handling a workload that ordinarily would have fallen heavily on Garnett. Bass got killed on the glass, as did all of his teammates, but he still showed the initiative to play a greater role on both ends, which is promising heading into the playoffs.
"You know, hell, maybe the blessing is without Kevin, we've removed his security blanket," Rivers said of Bass. "Now he has to be the talker on defense. Now he has to do the little things. It's great -- he was actually upset with someone early in the game because they were in the wrong position. I was thinking, 'Wow, that's really new.' And it's really nice. It's good. Maybe it's a blessing."
The next step is reintegrating Garnett in time for the playoffs. There are now just seven games remaining before the end of the regular season -- precious little time for the Celtics to figure things out.
The hope is that once KG is back, the Celtics' supporting players keep contributing at a high level.
"If he was here, I'd still continue to be aggressive," Green insisted. "He'd tell you that too. Everybody has to step up -- we have to do it as a team as long as he's out. We've just got to continue to build on what we have. We all have to be aggressive, and I'm just doing my part."
"At the end of the day, we all have roles," Bass added. "Everybody's just trying to play their roles to a T. When Kevin inserts himself back in, we're just going to keep rolling."