By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Apr 3 2009 12:16PM
For most of the season, the list of those with a real chance at winning the 2009 NBA championship has been three teams long. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the best team in the East and will likely have home-court advantage throughout the postseason. The Los Angeles Lakers are the best team in the West. And the Boston Celtics are the defending champs.
But it's about time to move the Celtics down to the second tier of contenders, one that includes Orlando and San Antonio.
On Tuesday, the Celtics decided to keep Kevin Garnett off the court until at least the last few games of the season. The earliest he'll return is for next Sunday's visit to Cleveland. But with Garnett still feeling pain in his right knee and possibly needing surgery, there's no guarantee that he'll be back at all. And there's no way he'll be back at 100 percent in the next couple of months.
With Garnett healthy, the Celtics are the best defensive team in the league. With Garnett on the shelf, they're just average. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year isn't in the top 20 in steals or blocks, but he's Boston's back-line anchor. And without him, they're just not the Celtics that we've come to know over the last two seasons.
The Celtics are 44-13 (.772) with Garnett and 13-6 (.684) without him. One of those 13 wins was over the Cavs on March 6, but they also lost to the Magic two days later. Boston is very likely to meet Orlando in the Conference semifinals. Home-court advantage for that series is still very much in the air, with the two teams currently tied in the loss column.
Boston has a slight advantage, with two additional wins (and two fewer remaining games to possibly lose) and a two-game advantage in conference record, which would be the tiebreaker since the teams split the season series. Both teams have Cleveland left on their schedule, but Orlando gets the Cavs at home (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Against the Celtics' first-round opponent (which at this point, could be one of five teams), Garnett's status may not be as big of a factor. But his presence provides a big matchup advantage against Orlando in that possible second-round matchup.
The Magic start Rashard Lewis at the four and struggle on the boards against teams with two true bigs. And Garnett has the mobility to stay with Lewis on the perimeter. But other than Garnett, the Celtics don't have someone mobile who can play the four and guard Lewis.
James Posey was their small four last season and often played big minutes down the stretch, but he's the Hornets' small four now. Glen Davis, who has started the last three games, has been solid offensively in Garnett's absence, but can't stay with Lewis. And even if he plays, Garnett's injury means that he won't be at his defensive best.
In general, without Garnett, the Celtics have had to win with offense. And Doc Rivers isn't comfortable with that. He'd much rather rely on the league's best defense, which won them last year's title. When asked about his team's chances of winning another championship if Garnett can't play, Rivers stated the obvious.
"That would be difficult, that would be very difficult," he said. "But let's hope that's something we don't have to find out."
Even if the Celtics can get past Orlando in the Conference semifinals with a gimpy Garnett, the chances of returning to the NBA Finals are slim without Garnett at 100 percent. The Cavs are on another level.
If Orlando beats out Boston for the second spot in the East, the Magic likely would face Detroit (another team with two true bigs), who've they've struggled with in recent years. And it would drop the Celtics down to the third spot. That makes the race for fifth, between Philadelphia and Miami, especially intriguing.
Finishing fifth means a first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks. Finishing sixth? That earns a matchup against the defending champs. No offense to Atlanta, a legit four seed. But there's a big difference between playing a team that hasn't won a playoff series in 10 years and one that held up the Larry O'Brien trophy just a year ago.
"We don't want to take anything away from the Hawks," Sixers guard Willie Green said Tuesday. "They're a good team. But at the same time, going against the defending NBA champions would be a tough test for us, even with the injuries they've had."
The Sixers are 1-6 against the Celtics over the last two seasons. They currently lead the Heat by a game in the loss column. But Philly's final four games include visits from the Cavs and Celtics, as well as a trip to Cleveland. And the Sixers will be without Thaddeus Young, who sprained his right ankle in Tuesday's win over Atlanta, for the rest of the regular season.
"We understand that we have a chance to create our own destiny going into the playoffs," Green said. "It's just a matter of us going out, taking each game one at a time, and trying to win each game. If we can do that, I think we'll position ourselves to play ... maybe Atlanta ... maybe somebody else."
After Wednesday's double-OT loss in Boston, the Bobcats trail the Bulls by a game and a half for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Still, with just seven games left on their schedule, Charlotte does not need any help to make the postseason. They actually control their own destiny.
The key is the Bobcats' April 11 visit to Chicago. If both teams win all of their other games (which, granted, isn't likely in either case) and the Bobcats can beat the Bulls at the United Center, the two teams would both finish 41-41 and Charlotte would have the tiebreaker, having won all three head-to-head matchups.
The Bulls play five of their last six games at home, but they're banged up right now. They're still missing Luol Deng, and John Salmons (groin), Kirk Hinrich (ankle) and Tyrus Thomas (shoulder) all missed practice on Thursday. And of course, Chicago hasn't exactly been consistent at any point this season.
"We've proven all year we're unpredictable," said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. "It's not going to be easy."
Of course, it's not out of the question that both the Bobcats and Bulls make the playoffs, knocking out the Pistons, who have lost eight of their last 11 games and host both Charlotte and Chicago at the Palace of Auburn Hills down the stretch.
"We get prepared to play them like no one else."
-- Wizards coach Ed Tapscott on the Cavs, who his team beat for the second time on Thursday.
"I'd probably go with a B or B-minus. We haven't won enough and I've committed too many turnovers."
-- Chicago's Derrick Rose on how he would grade his rookie season.
"I'm easily influenced, you know what I mean?"
-- Cleveland's Delonte West on changing his hairstyle back to braids after a recommendation from a fan on the street.
20-1 -- Assist-to-turnover ratio for Gilbert Arenas in his two games since returning from his knee injury.
0.979 -- Free throw percentage for Jose Calderon, who is on pace to set the record for highest single-season percentage in NBA history.
6 -- Consecutive 3-pointers made by Bobcats rookie D.J. Augustin. He has shot 12-for-15 from 3-point range over his last five games and leads the league with a 59.6 shooting percentage from downtown since the All-Star break.
David Lee, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, says he wants to stay in New York ... After two embarrassing losses to the Timberwolves and Bucks and hot-seat talk surrounding coach Lawrence Frank, the Nets have vowed to finish the season strong. "We've done a lot of things this season, and to cash in like that, that's not the way we want to end it," said Devin Harris. They beat the Pistons 111-99 on Wednesday ... The Raptors' current five-game winning streak is their longest since April of 2007 ... Wednesday's loss to Toronto may have been a good thing for the Magic, one more wake-up call before the playoffs begin.
If you have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an email.
|Wade on Heat Bench|
Miami's Dwyane Wade values the contribution of the players coming off the bench for the Heat.
|Wade on Game 1|
Miami's Dwyane Wade talks about his injury, his motivation and taking on the Pacers in Game 1.
|Grizzlies' Offensive Struggles|
The Grizzlies can not buy a basket as the Spurs' defense stuffs them under the basket.
|Playoffs Power Picks: Spurs vs. Grizzlies|
NBA TV's analysts make their picks between the Spurs and Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals.
|Spurs-Grizzlies: Game 3 Preview|
Chauncey Billups, Steve Smith and Greg Anthony look ahead to Game 3 in Memphis Saturday at 9p ET on ESPN.