With or without Garnett, repeat unlikely
Last night at the Garden felt like the final day of school.
Remember? It was nonstop recess. No rules. Windows open. Books closed. No more teacher's dirty looks. You could pretty much do anything you wanted. It was just a day to legally complete the school calendar.
Same deal with the Celtics last night. The skeleton crew C's beat the Washington Generals/Wizards, 115-107. Ray Allen got the night off. Paul Pierce got the night off. Kevin Garnett sat out for the 22d time in the last 26 games. It felt almost like a Patriots exhibition game. Good thing it was "fan appreciation night" or there might not have been any stars on the floor.
Allen and Pierce sat on the bench wearing suits that cost more than my car. Pierce addressed the crowd from center court before the game, acknowledging, "It's been a long year, a trying year," then asking for the fans to step up their game in the playoffs. Garnett's only appearance was on the videoboard - the famous footage of him yelling ("AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH") before the starters are introduced.
There weren't a ton of regulars in the stands, either. This was a night to give tickets to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. A lot of mail carriers and car mechanics were rewarded for years of loyal service.
The real games start Saturday, when the Celtics open a best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls. Most of us don't think the Celtics are going to repeat as world champions. Why? Because Garnett (sprained knee) won't be 100 percent and might not be a factor at all if things turn for the worse when he resumes practice today in Waltham.
Two other reasons they won't win: the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers. Both are better than the Celtics. And both have home-court advantage over Boston.
This feels like Cleveland's year just like last year felt like Boston's year. The Cavs have the best record and the best player. They went 39-2 at home. The only team in NBA history to go 40-1 at home was the 1985-86 Celtics. Some of us believe that team was the best in the history of basketball.
The Celtics are good. They won 62 games, which is the same number won by the 1983-84 Celtics; that's the only Larry Bird team that ever beat the Lakers in the Finals. This year's Green started 27-2 and won a franchise-record 19 consecutive games. Late in the season, they successfully wrestled for the second seed and won a ton of games even though they didn't have Garnett, Leon Powe, and a raft of other talents.
"It seemed like we were having a bad year at some points, compared to what we did last year," said Allen, who made 95.2 percent of his free throws this season, shattering a 50-year-old franchise record set by Bill Sharman.
"It's been a good year in a lot of ways," said coach Doc Rivers. "Our resolve has stuck out to me. Everybody said we were going to be the third seed. Well, we won 10 of 11 and we're the second seed.
"The toughest part of this year was the intensity of our opposition, the way they came at us, especially on the road. And not only the teams - the crowds. They all wanted to knock off the champs, and that was exhausting."
Ultimately, of course, the thing that matters most is Garnett. He hurt his knee in the first game after the All-Star break and was rendered useless for the rest of the regular season. He came back once, but the Celtics kept "shutting him down." And now nobody knows for sure that he'll even play when the postseason commences here Saturday afternoon. "I think he'll play, but we don't know," said Rivers. "If we don't like what we see [in practice today and tomorrow], he won't . . . Right now, we don't know. It's no fun for any of us. As a staff, we have to think of two game plans."
"KG will be rested," said general manager Danny Ainge, trying to put a light touch on the heavy situation.
What about the idea of shutting Garnett down for the first round since the Celtics can probably win without him?
"That really hasn't been discussed yet," said Ainge.
"I try not to think about it or worry about it," said Allen. "It becomes unfair to Leon, Glen [Davis], Kendrick [Perkins], and Mikki [Moore]. I am expecting him to play, but we don't know how he feels."
Nobody knows anything. That's the scary thing as the Celtics go into the playoffs. Garnett is intensely private (how does he live here for two years without seemingly ever being seen in public?) and recoils when asked about injuries.
Can they win without him?
"No," said Ainge, later qualifying that with, "It would be a difficult task."
We all know they can't win without him. And there's considerable doubt about their ability to win with him this year.
Garnett is to this team what Bill Russell was to the old Celtics. The Celtics won it in 11 of Russell's 13 seasons. The two years they didn't win? 1958, when Russell was hurt, and 1967, when the Philadelphia 76ers were simply better.
That's what this feels like. Garnett is hurt. And the Cavs are better.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.