On Monday afternoon, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge announced that Kevin Garnett is likely to miss the next two weeks with an ankle injury. While the Celtics seem sure that the injury won’t keep KG out of the lineup for the whole rest of the season, they do seem to be erring on the side of caution. Said coach Doc Rivers, “At the end of the day he may miss some games. We’re going to [err] on the right side; whatever they decide…at the end of the day, I want him right. I don’t want him half right.”
Though you might not know it from the lack of concern shown by Ainge and Rivers regarding the long-term effects of Garnett’s injury, the Celtics are facing a crucial part of their schedule in the upcoming weeks. As of Monday afternoon, the C’s sit 7th in the Eastern Conference with a 36-33 record. They are situated squarely between 6th and 8th in the standings, with only two games separating them from Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively.
While moving up to 6th might hold some sort of symbolic value – though I’m not really sure that this Boston squad takes symbolic value from anything – the most important thing for the Celtics is to avoid falling to 8th, which would mean a first round matchup with Miami. Given their current four game losing streak and the temporary loss of Garnett, the fate of the Celtics season will be decided on the lineups Doc puts on the floor over the coming weeks, and how the team reacts to the absence of its heart and soul.
One thing that will hopefully work to Boston’s advantage down the stretch is the schedule. Both the Celtics and Bucks have thirteen games left to play in the regular season, though the C’s schedule looks much friendlier. Only six of the Celtics remaining games are against playoff teams and only two of those six (New York and Miami) are on the road, where they have struggled mightily this year – going 12-23 as opposed to 24-10 at the TD Garden. For the Bucks, the home stretch will be a little more daunting. Seven of their final thirteen games are against current playoff teams and four of those seven (New York, Miami, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City) are on the road.
Milwaukee’s recent struggles offer additional support to a Boston team in need of all the help it can get. Despite their early success after trading for shooting guard J.J. Redick in late February, the Bucks have lost six of their last eight. Some of those losses, however, may be attributed to the absence of forward Ersan Ilyasova, who is in the process of returning to full strength after missing four games due to back and hip injuries. His return could be extremely helpful to the struggling Bucks, as their points per possession differential with their opponents is 2.3 points better when Ilyasova is on the floor.
While Ilyasova’s return may dim the Celtics hopes to some extent, the fact remains that they control their own destiny when it comes to the 7th seed. Although Garnett is obviously crucial to the Celtics success, there is evidence that the Celtics will be able to remain competitive in his absence.
First, the starting lineup that Boston is likely to use sans Garnett has been extremely successful to this point. Despite playing far fewer minutes than the Celtics normal starting five since Rajon Rondo’s injury, the lineup of Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass has been it’s most successfulin terms of points per 100 possessions differential. Though it is highly unlikely that they will be successful at that rate when given many more minutes, it is certainly possible for this group to at least keep Boston on track against a very mediocre schedule.
Second, the Celtics have been a much more efficient offensive team with Garnett off the floor. This should come as no surprise, as Garnett has posted a career low in offensive win shares and a true shooting percentage of 53.1% his lowest since the 2000-01 season, per Basketball-Reference. Although he has proven that he is an effective midrange shooter, Garnett’s affinity for long two-pointers, the least efficient shots in basketball, do not give the Celtics a very efficient or consistently effective offense. Assuming Green takes a majority of Garnett’s minutes, it is likely that his more advanced stat friendly shot chart, though not perfect, will help alleviate some of Boston’s offensive issues.
Because of the Celtics relatively light schedule the rest of the way, the Bucks recent struggles, and Boston’s effectiveness when playing with Green instead of Garnett, Celtics fans should be fairly optimistic about the team’s chances to retain the 7th seed in the East. The next step will be getting past either Indiana or New York, two teams against whom the Celtics have enjoyed a great deal of recent success.