For the first time in what felt like years, the Celtics walked away with an easy victory this evening at the TD Garden, a much-needed one for a team that's two weeks away from postseason basketball and looking for a little spark. And while no one factor jumped off the stat sheet as the obvious difference-maker in this victory, a 107-96 waltz past the Washington Wizards, the C's head coach was more than happy to gush about one big thing fueling the win.
"It's Kevin," Doc Rivers said. "He shows them the way. He talks. It's so many things. It's not just that he's on the floor guarding guys -- it's his talk, it's his presence. And teams don't really want to post him up, whereas when they look at our other guys, they want to post up. It's a lot of things."
"Kevin," in case you're an alien visiting the planet Earth for the first time and have never seen a basketball game, would be Kevin Garnett, the 18-year veteran manning the middle for the Celtics. For the first time since March 22, the big man was back in the lineup for Boston, and his presence was an immediate lift for a Celtics team that needed one.
His numbers were impressive by no means. KG finished with just 12 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes of play, and while his shooting line (6-of-9) looked efficient, the three misses were particularly ugly. One was an airball he launched from just six inches away from the rim. His individual performance didn't stand out. But with Garnett in the lineup, the Celtics became more of a cohesive unit, moving the ball on offense and moving themselves on D.
There are still kinks to be worked out, obviously, but there are still five games left for the Celtics to do so. So far, everything is going according to schedule with Garnett and the Celtics.
"I thought he was really good," Rivers said of KG. "Really good. I thought his rhythm was good early. I was surprised at how well he was running. I noticed that yesterday in practice -- we did all fast-break stuff, and I was just doing it for him so he didn't blow his lungs out. Tonight, I was surprised how well he was running. So that was good. We played him what, 24 minutes? You couldn't script that better. That was perfect."
With Garnett off the floor these last two weeks, the Celtics struggled to find an identity -- hell, they struggled even to find a starting lineup that worked. They tried going small with Jeff Green replacing KG straight-up; they tried Jason Terry on the wing with Green, then Jordan Crawford; they tried putting Green and Paul Pierce on the perimeter and going big with Chris Wilcox; they tried putting Courtney Lee in the starting five, then out of it, then in, then out, then back in again. In short, they tried a lot of things.
Now they're working on yet another new five-man unit, one that features KG as the center and the Green/Pierce combo at the two and three. This unit has precious little time to find playoff rhythm.
KG himself, though, has no problem with that.
"It doesn't matter what lineup is on the floor as long as we're playing the right way," Garnett said after his first game back. "That's all my concern is. I just want to make sure we're sharing the ball, playing as a team, giving it up for each other, playing defensively, being one voice, one sound. Those are the things that are most important."
The Celtics don't have much time to figure out all of KG's concerns. Just five games remain -- home against Brooklyn, at Miami and Orlando, then home again against Indiana and finishing the season at Toronto -- and that's all she wrote.
But now that the captain is back, the Celtics are becoming optimistic that they can put it all together.
"It's good to have Kevin healthy finally," Pierce said. "We're starting to come along. We're going to need these next [five] games coming into the playoffs, no matter who we play. Right now's the time for us to start trying to hit our stride."
This team has always had lofty goals. Whether it's the 66-win juggernaut it was in 2008 or the playoff bottom-feeder it is now, this group always has the same aspiration -- it's banner or bust. Even when the odds look near-impossible, the Celtics set their sights high.
We're two weeks away from finding out whether the C's have even a puncher's chance. Garnett, for one, remains confident.
"I've always felt good," he said. "I know what I have in here. I know who's willing to fight, who's not going to lay down. I'll take a bunch of fighters over some skill people any day."