Celtics struggle as Garnett's touches diminish

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Celtics struggle as Garnett's touches diminish

PHILADELPHIA Kevin Garnett is 6-foot-11 and literally the biggest reason why the Boston Celtics are still playing basketball right now.

He put the banged-up Celtics on his back and carried them to a series-clinching Game 6 win over Atlanta last week.

When they came out in Game 1 of their second-round series against Philadelphia with about as much energy as a fire fly, once again it was Kevin Garnett to the rescue.

He is a future Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career, playing at a level we haven't seen since from him since he arrived in Boston in 2007.

And yet for most of Game 2 against the Sixers, Garnett was a ghost that apparently no one on the Celtics could see for the bulk of three quarters.

In the world of text messaging lingo, this would qualify as a SMH (shake my head) moment for the Celtics who are in a 1-1 series tie with the Philadelphia 76ers heading into Games 3 and 4.

As inexplicable and confusing as it seemed at the time, listening to the Big Three -- Rajon Rondo, Garnett and head coach Doc Rivers -- who heavily determine Garnett's impact explain what happened.

The only thing that we know is this: Garnett didn't take over the game until the fourth quarter, and by then it was too late.

Here's Rivers' take on what happened.

"We didn't go to him," Rivers said. "It's plain and simple."

Garnett finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, with 11 of those points coming in the fourth.

Prior to fourth, Garnett had taken just five shots (he made two) from the field. His 12-foot, step-back jumper just 17 seconds into the fourth quarter was his first made field goal since the 9:12 mark of the first quarter.

The Sixers are a very good team defensively, and certainly made limiting Garnett's touches a central part of their defensive game plan.

"We tried to put some strength on him," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "We tried to take away his rhythm shots. They do such a great job of getting you strung out and throwing back to him and all those shots he catches in rhythm he just doesnt miss. So really it was trying to disrupt the efficiency and the timing just a little bit. And our guys were able to do it."

Everything Collins said was on point.

His big men, namely Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand and rookie Lavoy Allen, all did a good job collectively of keeping Garnett from getting into any kind of flow offensively.

But the C's, truth be told, made it easier for the Sixers defense to do so.

In Game 1, Boston would often feed the ball to Garnett and when the double-team came, he'd pass it back outside, only to re-post and get the ball again.

After re-posting, Garnett often had a better shot attempt or it freed up a teammate for a pretty good look either cutting to the basket or for an open or lightly contested perimeter shot.

But far too often when Garnett would pass the ball out of a double team in Game 2, he didn't see it again.

"KG is an unselfish player," said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. "He could have taken a lot more shots than he did. He passed up some shots to get the assist, or he made the hockey pass."

Garnett is wise enough to know that no matter what the Sixers try to do to him defensively, he has the ability to score when needed.

But Garnett is trying to make things easier not only for himself, but the C's as a whole by getting other guys involved more in the scoring.

With Paul Pierce (sprained MCL, left knee) having little lift on his shots now, Boston has to find another scoring threat besides Garnett.

To his credit, KG - the C's as a team really - tried to make that player be Brandon Bass who has had a rough stretch shooting the ball in the playoffs.

After averaging a career-high 12.5 points in the regular season on 47.9 percent shooting from the field, Bass is down to 9.5 points in the playoffs while shooting 40 percent from the field.

Bass made his first three shots in Game 2, but missed 10 of his next 12 and finished with 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting.

Without question, the C's quest to get Bass on track certainly took away to some extent, opportunities for Garnett.

When asked whether it was the Sixers defense or that he just got into a rhythm late in the game, Garnett said, "I don't call the plays; Doc, Rondo, you know, trying to get guys into rhythm, get the offense flowing. That's what it is. Whatever he asks me to do, I'll do."

If it's that simple, then the message to Garnett and the Celtics is pretty obvious.

Get him the ball. A lot. All game.

Of course, Garnett is too unselfish to put it out there that the Celtics need to get him the ball more often.

But in describing what happened down the stretch in Boston's Game 2 loss, it's pretty clear what he knows -- and the C's for that matter -- has to happen for them to take a series lead on Wednesday.

"Execution. We didn't execute the way we know we can (in Game 2)," Garnett said. "We went away from a lot of different things. I felt like post-presence, we did it late. We didn't have post presence until the fourth quarter or whatever. We're a better team than we played (in Game 2). We'll watch film and get better."

Are Cavs vulnerable enough for C's to be taken seriously as No. 1 seed?

Are Cavs vulnerable enough for C's to be taken seriously as No. 1 seed?

Let’s say things had gotten crazy towards the end of the NFL season. Maybe the Pats lose their game to the Ravens in Week 14, Derek Carr never gets hurt and the Raiders end up grabbing the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Would anybody really consider the Raiders the team to beat?

That’s kind of what’s going on in the NBA right now. The Celtics are first in the Eastern Conference, a spot they could very conceivably hold at season’s end, yet there isn’t even a drop of “this is the year” talk from even if their most loyal fans. That’s all because of LeBron James (in the East, at least) and that’s probably warranted.

Yet there’s a reason the Cavaliers aren’t running away with the East this season and it’s greater than the fact that James-led teams typically don’t go for broke in the regular season; though LeBron has reached the NBA Finals in six straight seasons, only two of them saw him do so as a top seed.

That reason is, in large part, injuries. Kevin Love has underwhelmed since his return from knee surgery (13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in a little over 26 minutes a night compared to 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds in nearly 32 minutes a night before the surgery), while Kyle Korver has been in and out with a left foot issue. The team considers J.R. Smith to be in “training camp” in his games back from a fractured thumb.

This is also by far the worst defensive Cavaliers team since James’ return in 2014-15. Cleveland allows 106.8 per game, which ranks 21st in the league. In each of the past two seasons, they allowed an average of 97.9 points.

All that said, the NBA often boils down to star talent, and James and Kyrie Irving is probably better on paper, with whatever flotsam and jetsam you give them, than anything else you can jot down in the East. It was a similar story when the Heat finished with the No. 2 seed in three of James’ four seasons there. They steamrolled the No. 1 seed Bulls in five games in 2010-11 and beat the top-seeded Pacers in six in 2013-14.

Yet the supporting cast is diminished and so too has been the team’s performance. With a less-than-healthy Love, the Cavaliers aren’t nearly as intimidating. All this while the Celtics have won seven of eight. That’s not to say the Celtics don’t have their share of fool’s gold.  Of the aforementioned seven wins, only three came vs. teams in line for a playoff spot and the loss came to a terrible 76ers team, albeit without Isaiah Thomas.

Yet would it really be so out of the question that a healthy Celtics team, with Thomas in a career year, Marcus Smart continuing to emerge and Al Horford beefing up a roster that was one-and-done in years past, could give a vulnerable Cavaliers team a run for its money, especially with a home-court advantage?

Maybe not, and maybe it will be a moot point by the time late April rolls around, but for now, can’t we read into the Celtics as contenders just a little bit?

Celtics move into No. 1 spot in East as Cavs get crushed by Spurs

Celtics move into No. 1 spot in East as Cavs get crushed by Spurs

SAN ANTONIO -- The Cavaliers acknowledged having heavy legs, yet there is something far weightier on the minds of the defending NBA champions.

Cleveland is in the midst of one of its worst stretches this season and there is little time to fix it.

Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cavs 103-74 on Monday night in a much-anticipated showdown that turned into a major letdown for Cleveland.

"The way we've been struggling, (the Spurs are) the last team that you want to play," said LeBron James, who was fine after taking an elbow to the neck. "A well-oiled machine like this, they exploit everything that you're not doing well at that point in time of the season and right now we're not playing good basketball."

James, who finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes, said he will play Thursday at Chicago.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Cavaliers have nine games remaining, all against teams in the East, including a visit to Boston on April 5.

James said the standings "always matter," but playing more consistently is far more important and he refused to blame injuries or an arduous schedule for the team's troubles.

"It matters more that we're playing better basketball than where we're at," he said. "If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That's what it comes down to."

What Cleveland is seeking, the Spurs have already found.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league's best record entering a home game against the Warriors on Wednesday.

The Spurs have won five straight and 8 of 10 after sweeping the season series with the Cavaliers.

"It was a big game, but in the end, it's just one game, and one win," San Antonio guard Tony Parker said. "We're trying to be consistent. We're trying to play the same way every game. It was definitely surprising. Coming off a loss, I thought they would play with a lot more energy, but it can happen. It's a long season. It's just one game and I'm sure they're going to bounce back and use this game as motivation."

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs.

San Antonio led by as many as 33 to the delight of the sold-out crowd, and the Spurs' bench outscored the Cavaliers' reserves 49-24.

"We did a good job coming out early and then keeping our foot on the pedal," Leonard said.

Cleveland, which was already without injured Iman Shumpert, received more bad news Monday morning when it was announced that Kyle Korver will miss at least two more games with a sore left foot.

"You lose Korver and Shumpert off your bench and things tend to change," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "With those two guys out, we tried some different things and it didn't work. It was not on the bench. It was on me."

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than rest them, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of the Cav's second lopsided loss in the past two weeks.

Lue said he has considered resting his stars over the team's final nine games, which James is not in favor of.

"Coach is going to have his logic of things, but we need to play," he said.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt. He remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench.

James left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout, but said afterward he is fine.

EXTRA SHOOTING

Irving returned to the court for about 15 minutes following the loss to work on his jump shot. The star guard had eight points and two assists in 26 minutes. He finished 4 for 13 from the field and missed his two 3-point attempts.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers . . . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O'Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O'Neal has 28,596 career points . . . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding opponents under 100 points per game for the 22nd straight season . . . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots . . . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

UP NEXT

Cavaliers: At the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.

Spurs: Host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night.