Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 30, 2010

Doc Rivers’ Magic Show Takes A Hit

Fans of the Boston Celtics couldn’t avoid a dreaded sense of déjà vu Wednesday night. Late in the first quarter in a game at The Palace of Auburn Hills against the Detroit Pistons, forward Kevin Garnett took a bad step as he prepared to go up for a dunk. He came down from the leap grimacing, being careful not to put too much weight on his right leg. The game against Detroit was Boston’s second since Christmas Day.

One year ago, in the Celtics’ first game after Christmas, Garnett hyper-extended his knee. He missed the next ten games, during which Boston went 4-6. That presaged a disappointing run through the rest of the regular season. Boston was 23-5 after a Christmas Day victory over Orlando, but managed to play just .500 basketball after that, going 27-27 over their final 54 games.

This year Boston again played the Magic in Orlando on Christmas Day. When they came up short this time around, halting a 14-game winning streak, their record was once again 23-5. So when Garnett limped off the court four nights later, the visions in New England basketball fans’ heads were decidedly not of sugarplums.

The good news today is that Garnett’s injury is to his calf muscle, not his surgically repaired right knee. Speaking to Boston radio station WEEI Celtics’ president Danny Ainge described the injury as a muscle strain, and said that Garnett “will be out a couple of weeks at most to be conservative.” This came after the team had viewed the results of an MRI.

So Celtics fans are breathing a little easier today. A two week absence would mean Garnett would miss eight games. However only two of those are against elite teams, the Spurs and Bulls; and an equal number are against the two worst teams in the league, the Timberwolves and Kings.

Still, the injury to one of Boston’s “Big Three” of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, leaves one wondering how much longer coach Doc Rivers can continue to work his magic act. Last season, after their disappointing winter and early spring, the Celtics turned it on once the playoff started and commenced a remarkable run that took them all the way to a Game 7 in the Finals against the Lakers.

But after coming oh so close to an 18th title, Ainge chose to focus his off-season work on keeping the old gang together. The operative word in that sentence of course being “old.” He signed the 33-year old Pierce to a four year contract extension, and then brought back the 35-year old Allen with a two-year deal. With Garnett already locked up through 2012 that meant the Celtics were firmly committed to the Big Three as the best means of winning another title.

What few other moves Ainge and the Celtics made in the off-season did nothing to lower the team’s average age. With center Kendrick Perkins out until at least the middle of this season following his severe knee injury in Game 6 of last year’s Finals, Ainge went O’Neal shopping for help in the paint. He first signed 32-year old Jermaine, and then added 74-year old Shaquille.

Understandably viewing Boston as an old team, most pundits looked elsewhere for Eastern Conference powers as this season got underway. The mighty triumvirate in Art Deco land made Miami the easy choice as the team to beat; with the young but maturing Chicago Bulls and perennial playoff-bound Orlando Magic looking more likely than Boston to compete with the Heat. But through the first third of the schedule it has been the Celtics’ making clear that they aren’t ready for the rocking chair quite yet. Even after Wednesday’s loss to the Pistons, the Green still sit atop the Eastern Conference.

Much of the credit has to go to Rivers, who has been forced to constantly juggle his lineup due to a series of injuries to players not named Garnett, Pierce, or Allen. Playmaker Rajon Rondo has missed the last 6 games with an ankle sprain, Delonte West has been out 15 since breaking his wrist, and both of the O’Neal’s have been hurt and unavailable for significant periods (though Shaquille did do a fine job of conducting the Boston Pops at their holiday concert). The Celtics’ record to date would have been a surprise had the whole team been healthy. Given their injuries, it is little short of amazing.

It will be incumbent upon the two O’Neal’s as well as Glenn “Big Baby” Davis to step up, especially defensively, while Garnett sits. Beyond that, Celtics fans have to hope that the injury bugs that have infested the TD Garden so far this season will finally be exterminated. It’s been great fun so far, but Boston remains an old team. Meanwhile it’s clear that after some initial bumps in the road, the holy trinity in Miami is finally getting their act together. The Bulls aren’t far behind, and even the recently remade Magic may finally be ready to contend. But in the standings so far, they are all still looking up at Boston. Now if only the Celtics can just avoid feeling déjà vu all over again.

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