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Surviving without Kevin Garnett

02.26.09 at 1:26 am ET
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It is not intuitive that a team would play better without one of its best players. Maybe in the short run, but over a long stretch of time it just isn’t supposed to work that way. So, it is somewhat curious that the Celtics have assembled an enviable record without Kevin Garnett in the lineup over the last year and a half.

Last year the Celtics went 9-2 without Garnett. This season, due to suspension, illness and injury, the Celtics were a perfect 5-0 without KG before they spent most of the last night’s game with the Clippers like they had been out in L.A. Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night with Tom Waits. Fittingly, it ended on a turnover, one of 20 for the Celtics.

In all it was a bad night for the Celtics who lost a perfectly winnable game when they uncharacteristically blew their cool down the stretch. Paul Pierce picked up a technical after he had a little shove for Mardy Collins following a hard foul and Rajon Rondo failed to gain control of the game. A bad call on the timeout after Rondo missed a free throw? Sure, but they never should have been in that position in the first place.

Last night aside, how have the Celtics managed without KG? Oddly enough, while Garnett may be one of the most unique talents in the league, the Celtics are constructed in a way that covers for his absence. If they were without the services of Paul Pierce or Ray Allen for an extended period of time that would be a different story. The bench is weak in swing men, and is even weaker since the injury absence to Tony Allen. All of which makes the dislocated thumb Pierce suffered against the Clippers potentially a very big deal.

But behind Garnett the Celtics have the productive Leon Powe. Per 36 minutes, Powe averages almost 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, numbers that compare, if not favorably, than at least are in line with Garnett’s production. But Powe wasn’t the first man to replace Garnett.

The first was Brian Scalabrine who turned in a 14-point effort against Phoenix, which combined with a career game by Rondo (32 points, 10 assists and six rebounds) and superior efforts by Pierce and Allen gave the C’s more than enough offensive firepower.

When Scalabrine went out early against Denver, Powe responded with 16 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. Additionally, Big Baby Davis put together his best stretch of games in a month, so Garnett’s absence was compensated for on the offensive end.

Defensively is where the Celtics miss Garnett the most–and they certainly did against Zach Randolph who ate them up inside–but in one of the more under-appreciated stories this year, the Celtics have become a rebounding machine.

They are the best rebounding team in the league by Rebound Rate (essentially the percentage of available rebounds a team gets), which is a far more reliable indicator than total rebounds. The Celtics were +8 against both Phoenix and Denver and effective rebounding can make any team look better on D. But against the Clippers, while they had a 41-39 edge on the boards, LA was the more efficient rebounding team and won the battle inside.

The key in replacing star players isn’t always who takes their spot in the starting lineup, it’s sometimes who covers for the backup who suddenly finds himself a starter. With Scal, the Celtics have the perfect utility player for those occasions, which is why he usually gets the call to replace Garnett or Kendrick Perkins, as it keeps the bench more or less intact and within their usual roles.

Without Scalabrine, who got whacked in the head against the Nuggets things get trickier. He missed last night’s game, and won’t play Friday either, and his absence was a major concern when Powe, Perkins and Davis all had foul trouble.

But still, the Celtics are in decent shape to ride out Garnett’s injury. The schedule isn’t terribly rough when they come back from the West Coast, with games against Indiana, a struggling Detroit team and the Nets. Cleveland comes to town next Friday and Orlando follows and you know Garnett will be angling to return for those games. Even with the loss last night that decision should have everything to do with his health, as it should be.

Quick thoughts on Mikki Moore

Mikki Moore has a career that defines the term “journeyman.” In 11 NBA seasons he has had 10 jobs with eight different teams (two stints apiece with New jersey and Boston). In those 11 seasons he has played over 2,000 minutes twice and over 1,000 minutes four times.

After a career year in New Jersey, playing alongside Jason Kidd, he had an unsatisfying year and half run with the Kings. Moore is tall, athletic and runs the floor well (he is also said to be one of the all-time good guys in the league, as well). He gives the Celtics length and experience, two qualities that are in short supply on the bench.

What he is not is P.J. Brown redux. Moore doesn’t have that consistent 15-foot jump shot that and he is not nearly the defender that Brown was. That said, Moore represented the best value at the time. There was/and is a lot of talk about Joe Smith, but there were two things conspiring against the Celtics.

The first is that Smith is not available (at least not yet). Since the trade to New Orleans was rescinded, the Thunder have held on to the veteran forward. If he was to become available, a handful of teams, notably Cleveland where Smith played last season, have more of their mid-level exception to offer. In other words, there was no guarantee that Smith would, or even could, come to Boston. A real Mikki Moore is worth more than the thought of Joe Smith.

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