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Baby would be grand

Big void left by Davis after all

By Gary Washburn
November 23, 2009

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NEW YORK - The stunning and rather absurd injury to Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis a month ago was shrugged off as merely a speed bump for the Celtics on their road to reclaiming the NBA title. The organization believed it possessed enough depth to counter Davis’s broken thumb and it would allow an opportunity for others to flourish in his absence.

One Eastern Conference scout remarked yesterday while watching the Celtics struggle to defeat the Knicks, 107-105, in overtime that they desperately miss Davis, and without him their big men appear old and slow.

Davis has enough youth to bounce back from games on back-to-back days, or in this case two in 41 hours. And he has enough beef to bump with New York center Eddy Curry, who in his brief stretch caused the Celtics major problems with his size and ability to occupy about half the key.

The Celtics lack a backup center behind Kendrick Perkins. Kevin Garnett is just starting to round into playing condition, and his defense against Al Harrington in the second half was admirable. But he is still weeks from playing consistently solid post defense.

Rasheed Wallace has not played nearly up to expectations through 14 games and we are beginning to see why the Pistons made little effort to retain him. Wallace finished 0 for 6 from the field yesterday and was scoreless in his worst game as a Celtic.

Wallace is 26 for 82 (31.7 percent) from the field in his last nine games, and yesterday his fifth technical tied him with Perkins for the NBA lead. What Wallace transformed into in Detroit was a major distraction who no longer could produce at a high level offensively. That’s what he has brought to Boston thus far.

“Every good shooter goes through it, but it’s a matter that you can’t stop shooting, you have to keep shooting,’’ Wallace said after yesterday’s win. “It’s frustrating a little bit, but I still don’t let it stop me from my overall game. Because that’s just one facet of the game. I’ll make a shot one of these days.’’

Where Wallace is deficient is on those non-scoring, game-altering plays. When he plays tough post defense, he growls at nearly every foul call. Yesterday he had a legitimate gripe, as Curry grabbed his jersey to gain position and Wallace was called for the retaliation, but trailing by 5 points with 8:53 left in regulation is not the time for a technical.

“He’s not playing great and he knows that,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “If it was a young guy, it would really concern me. A veteran? He’ll be in the gym taking a thousand shots. I’ve got to do a better job getting him low [in the post] to start games and then let him work his way out. Obviously, I want him to play better and I think he will.’’

The absence of Davis limits Rivers’s options with his big men and it’s becoming apparent that he doesn’t trust Shelden Williams for late-game minutes. All nine of Williams’s minutes came in the first half, while the Celtics were in dire need of dependable post play against Curry, the suddenly All-Star-caliber Harrington, or nifty undersized center David Lee.

For all the depth the Celtics believed they had, they rank 29th in the league in rebounding, and it also would be nice to have Davis’s developing mid- range offensive game.

A regrettable fight with a buddy not only cost Davis a chance to validate his contract extension, it robbed the Celtics of a young, hungry player.

And the consensus is that the Celtics are an older team than they thought.

“Baby gives us a force, he brings strength,’’ Garnett said about an hour after draining the winning shot yesterday at the buzzer. “He brings us versatility, the fact you can play different lineups with myself, Rasheed, Shelden. When we get him back along with Tony Allen, it will make us a better team.’’

Rivers has stuck to the Celtics’ long-term goals. Despite the lack of interior depth, he has played Garnett fewer than 31 minutes per game and the forward played just over 32 of the 53 minutes yesterday. Because of Garnett’s foul trouble and Wallace’s ineffectiveness, however, Rivers was forced to play Brian Scalabrine in critical stretches.

While Scalabrine is a fans’ delight and a good 3-point shooter, asking him to play solid interior defense is too much. Believe it or not, this incredibly deep Celtics team could use help. Allen won’t return until he can practice consistently, while Davis is targeting a mid-December return, but it could be later.

The Eastern Conference scout said the Celtics looked slower than last season, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. They are depending on four 30-somethings to win in a young man’s league. By contrast, the Knicks have one player who appeared in yesterday’s game who was born in the 1970s - Larry Hughes in 1979 - and their core players all are in or nearing their prime.

What the Celtics are learning is that younger, athletic teams are going to cause major problems. Indiana was hardly as talented but had fresher legs. The Knicks are a mess, but they are fast and streaky. The Celtics need some youth of their own, and hopefully Davis is back in Boston lamenting his mistake and arduously rehabilitating his right hand. The title could be at stake.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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