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They'd have looked sharper with Garnett

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By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / May 18, 2009
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The 6-foot-11-inch slender yet muscular celebrity wasn't wearing a No. 5 jersey, fancy adidas sneakers, or long baggy shorts. Instead, Kevin Garnett wore a pretty custom-made dark blue suit, with a white shirt, red tie, white pocket square, and shiny dress shoes.

After taking a deep sigh, the All-Star forward walked with a limp out of TD Banknorth Garden last night with his head slightly down because the Celtics' season was over.

Although it is impossible to read the thoughts of a man who has opted not to say much publicly for a while, the words were written all over Garnett's face, body language, and limp, and the rest of the Celtics and their fans surely are thinking the same thing.

What if?

"It's only natural to think that," forward Paul Pierce said after a season-ending 101-82 Game 7 loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals last night. "Of course, you would think that after a loss when you ponder about the season and the playoffs. That's something that people around the world are going to think about with the way we fought without him. But you can't cry over spilled milk and unfortunately we didn't have the big fella for this run. Hopefully, the main thing for him right now is to get healthy."

The vision of Garnett kissing the parquet floor after winning the 2008 NBA title and yelling, "Anything is possible!" forever will be in Celtics lore. But a repeat didn't seem possible without the future Hall of Famer on the roster because of a strained right knee. The 2008 NBA Defensive Player of the Year suffered the injury without being touched Feb. 19 at Utah.

The fiery and vocal Garnett valiantly returned for four games with a minutes restriction that kept him out of the second and fourth quarters. In what would be his final contest of the season, the second-year Celtic had 4 points and 8 rebounds in 16 minutes at Orlando Feb. 25.

Coach Doc Rivers said before the playoffs that Garnett would not play in the postseason. Team president Danny Ainge, who declined comment last night, eventually echoed that. Even so, there was wild media speculation and hope from Boston fans that Garnett would walk through that door, since he had yet to have surgery. But at the shootaround before the Celtics' Game 7 loss, Rivers said he wouldn't expect Garnett to play if his team advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. Rivers reiterated those words after the game and wasn't certain when Garnett would have his bone spur surgery that isn't expected to keep him sidelined long.

"We were hoping," Rivers said. "Obviously, I didn't think that would happen. But someone asked me that today and clearly that's why we didn't do surgery. I think that was not a secret. I still didn't think there was any of it happening. If we had won this series, there was no way he was going to play the next series.

"But, you know, as reported at one point he was going to do the surgery. And then we decided, well, why? Just fate, hope, you never know. So we were hoping. But we didn't [play him]. I didn't think it was going to happen."

Garnett averaged 15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.1 blocks this season. Despite being out 24 games to injury and one to suspension, he still was named an All-NBA defensive first-team selection. Without Garnett, the Celtics were 7-7 in the postseason and allowed a lofty 102.1 points per game. With Garnett, the expectations were that the Celtics still would be playing and their defense would be much better.

The Celtics were also without forward Leon Powe, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee in Game 2 of the first-round series against Chicago. The gritty 6-8, 240-pounder averaged 7.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game during the regular season.

"No, I won't go there," said Rivers about how things would've been different with Garnett. "You know, before he went down we were the second-best team in basketball record-wise. But I didn't think it was just Kevin, guys. I thought it was a combination of Kevin and Leon that hurt us.

"Obviously, we missed Kevin. He was the Defensive Player of the Year last year. But I thought it was a combination of those two. That was a big blow for us."

With Garnett out, reserve forward Glen Davis gave a strong effort to try to fill those huge shoes. The 6-9, 289-pounder averaged 15.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in 14 postseason games. Although Davis did a great job of scoring, it was too hard to totally replace what Garnett brought offensively and there was no way to replace the huge void that was missing from the defense.

Ray Allen described Garnett as an intimidating defender who could help in the paint and the wing and brought energy, focus, and communication.

"It's tough out there," Allen said. "But as long as you communicate with Kev, everyone could hear Kev on defense. We always knew what we were supposed to do. But Kev, being in the league for a long time, that's what makes him one of the great players of the game. He communicates with teammates and has passion and energy at all times that he draws into us. That's something we learned we missed not having him out there."

Although the All-Star trio of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce will be a year older, the former champions should be better next season if healthy. How? Rajon Rondo will be an All-Star candidate next season. Perkins has gotten better and shown more confidence with Garnett out. Assuming Davis is re-signed, he will be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. And promising rookies Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens should be able to add some athleticism, too.

But above all, Garnett has to be healthy for another championship run.

"If we keep the core together, get him back next year, we'll see what happens," Pierce said. "Hopefully, we can stay healthy next year in the playoffs and see what happens. I honestly believe we are the best team in the NBA still with a healthy group of guys. I remember before the season when people would ask me if we would repeat, I said, 'Yeah, we have a great chance to repeat, but only if we're healthy.'

"Truly, that's what it's all about in the NBA. You have injuries that happen. It [stinks]. Hopefully, next [season] we will be healthy. I still feel like we're the team to beat."

In his only words to the media, Garnett said, "I look forward to seeing you guys next year. You guys have a good summer."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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