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Missing Garnett doesn't hurt yet

Paul Pierce strips the ball from Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki in the second half. Paul Pierce strips the ball from Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki in the second half. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / February 1, 2008

Kevin Garnett missed his third consecutive game last night, and his coach produced a timetable for a return without a calendar. In other words, indefinite. Or he could be back Tuesday. Does that make it any clearer? Didn't think so.

Garnett has an abdominal strain and, yes, that can be troublesome. Shaquille O'Neal missed 21 games with one during the 1997-98 season. Manny Ramírez - the anti-Garnett - had a strained oblique last season and missed 24 games. It's one of those injuries you don't mess around with - and one that may require a long time to heal.

Fortunately for the Celtics, they have time, plenty of it. That's what 36 wins in 44 games after last night's 96-90 win over Dallas has given Doc Rivers. He can now be a real Doc, holding out Ray Allen here and James Posey there. Gregg Popovich has been doing that for years with the Spurs and he seems to have succeeded all right with that approach.

Now, Rivers is putting the clamps on his best player and will not release them until he is sure Garnett is ready to step back on the floor. If that means missing Tuesday's biggie at Cleveland, so be it. If it means missing next Friday's, soon-to-be-hyped Return to Minnesota, so be it. If it means missing All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, so be it. Rivers made it clear yesterday that Garnett won't play again until the putative MVP is 100 percent healthy.

"It's just not worth it," Rivers said. "We need him for the long haul. Could he have played [last night]? Maybe. I don't even think he should. It's just not worth it."

Rivers is 100 percent correct. Danny Ainge said before the game last night that he didn't know when Garnett would be back, but that he didn't see this thing as a "long-term problem." It didn't appear that his nose was growing when he was talking. And one way to make sure it isn't a long-term problem is to take care of it in the short term, however long that might be.

"It's kind of a hard injury to diagnose," Paul Pierce said. "It's not like he's walking around with a limp or a cane or something. Only time will tell. I don't know if it's getting any better or worse, but I think it's getting better because he was a little more upbeat [yesterday] than he's been the last couple days."

Anyone who saw the Celtics' first 41 games knows how valuable Garnett is. He's a transformative presence on defense and an energy spreader at both ends. He demands excellence from his teammates. He's also pretty good, which helps.

We don't know how badly he's hurt except that it has to be somewhat serious because Garnett doesn't miss games. Yes, he's missed six in each of the last two seasons, but 11 of those were after the Timberwolves had long made travel plans for Secaucus, N.J. In 12 seasons, the guy missed a total of 25 games and a good portion of those were those mid-April, Game 82-type contests where nothing was at stake. The Timberwolves had a lot of those over the years.

The Celtics don't have them now, but they do have the luxury of playing in the Eastern Conference, where three straight losses won't drop you from first place overall to ninth. What is the worst that could happen if the Celtics go on a slide waiting for a month for Garnett to get healthy? They get passed by Detroit and tumble to, um, second in the conference? Could you live with that if it led to a healthy Garnett in the spring? I sure could.

Unless Ainge is being coy and it's really worse than the Celtics are letting on - insert your favorite Bill Belichick line here - or unless Rivers's idea of being 100 percent is unattainable, the Celtics shouldn't take much of a hit while Garnett is mending. They split the first two games, losing a close one at Orlando (the No. 3 team in the East) and then destroying the rudderless, heartless Miami Heat without Garnett and Allen.

The great unknown is whether all that mileage from all those years has started to catch up a bit with Garnett. Rivers isn't taking any chances; he wants to see a healthy Garnett in a playoff game in May over a sorta healthy Garnett in a big January game.

Last night's game represented the Celtics' first of the season against any of the top three teams in the West (according to records, which means the Spurs aren't in that group). The Celtics have six games remaining before the All-Star break and only two of them, Tuesday in Cleveland and a week from Sunday against the Spurs, are against likely playoff teams. The other opponents are the Clippers, Wolves, Knicks, and Pacers. We could see Garnett in any of those games, or none of those games. It's the uncertainty that makes it a little sketchy, but it's the Celtics' record that affords them that luxury.

"There are no guarantees until he's 100 percent," Rivers said. "If he's ready for Cleveland, great. If he's not, we'll sit him. If he's not ready for the next one [the Clippers], we'll sit him. I'm not playing him until he's 100 percent. That could be Cleveland. It could be after the All-Star break. It could be after that. He's not playing until he's 100 percent."

In other words, don't take him off your rotisserie team just yet.

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com.

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