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Reflect, then look ahead

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 23, 2010

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There will be nothing but positives surrounding the return of Kevin Garnett if teammates react appropriately to his presence.

Garnett’s return doesn’t make the Celtics a championship team, it makes them championship-caliber. But the other 13 players have to respond with self-reflection and improvement because there was major slippage in his absence. Last night’s 98-95 overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers at TD Garden wasn’t exactly impressive, but Garnett’s impact was apparent.

The “Garnett’s out’’ excuse grew tired recently. The Celtics lost to teams they should have beaten even without Garnett: a limping Dallas team that lost by 22 points to Toronto the day before; a Detroit squad still waiting for Ben Gordon and Tayshaun Prince to return; and an inconsistent Chicago club that lost to the Clippers Wednesday. Those teams soundly beat the Celtics without Garnett because Boston’s other weapons misfired badly - mostly on the defensive end.

In nine January games prior to last night - all without Garnett - the Celtics were 4-5, and in four of the losses Boston blew second-half leads with poor defense.

Last night, the Celtics held Portland to 2-for-13 shooting in overtime and 17 for 49 after halftime (35 percent). Although the Celtics missed a handful of layups and short jumpers, they countered by getting stops, something that wasn’t the case without Garnett.

“It’s very difficult sitting there watching. I don’t sit on the bench for a reason,’’ said Garnett, who finished with 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists in 30 minutes. “The impact I think I can give this team is tremendous. I bring a lot of energy when it comes to defense, a semi-high IQ when it comes to defense. I look for guys, I get guys open, some of the small things I think we’ve been lacking the last couple of games.’’

During their slump, the Celtics turned into a first-half team. Their second halves were riddled with turnovers, defensive miscues, and selfish play.

Following Wednesday’s loss to the Pistons, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo had a stern conversation, and concluded the genesis of their problems were offensive selfishness and lack of help defense. Garnett will erase many of those problems, but can’t expunge them all. That’s too much to ask.

The Celtics have to work harder defensively in fourth quarters. Portland’s Andre Miller was stellar for most of last night’s game, but he missed 4 of 5 shots in overtime and wasn’t able to get to the paint as he did in regulation. The Celtics showed a vast improvement on inside defense from Wednesday, when Detroit’s Rodney Stuckey scored 27 points with a career-high 11 rebounds.

There has to be better ball movement and crisper passing. The Celtics have to talk more on defense and communicate better on offense. It’s a collective effort. Garnett cannot do it himself, but he fostered better communication last night.

“I thought we were scrapping on the defensive end,’’ center Kendrick Perkins said. “We got some stops, loose balls. We were covering for each other. We just had a pretty good defensive game. It’s a great feeling just to have [Garnett] back there, just knowing he’s got your back, saying he is there. It’s a good feeling.’’

Garnett’s return should be the beginning of the Celtics’ march toward the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. There should be no mercy for lesser opponents. With 41 games left, the Celtics (28-13) have half the season to regain the chemistry, execution, and prowess seen only for stretches during the first half.

The last time the Celtics played a complete game with no major letdowns or setbacks was the Christmas win at Orlando. Two games later, Garnett went down with a hyperextended right knee, and the Celtics have been disjointed since.

The players were especially angry following Wednesday’s loss, and Allen said there needed to be more accountability. Garnett will make sure his teammates are aware of their mistakes, but there has to be more.

“It’s amazing you ask [about Garnett’s impact] because if you look at all the superstars around the league, he does all the things those superstars don’t do,’’ said forward Paul Pierce, who fouled out at the end of regulation. “The way he talks on defense, the way he helps everybody on the court on defense, sets screens. Those things are really overlooked throughout the league. But he’s so selfless, one of the most unselfish ever to play the game.’’

He’s the voice of reason and a voice that demands respect, but not even a tongue lashing from KG can turn the Celtics’ world a pretty green again. There has to be personal motivation from the rest of the cast. Doc Rivers is not the type of coach to call team meetings. He expects players to assess themselves and make the types of adjustments that ensure gradual improvement.

The Celtics have regressed in the last few weeks and perhaps the return of Garnett can serve as an opportunity for his teammates to refresh and focus for the rest of the regular season. At 33, Garnett can no longer be depended upon to carry the Celtics, but he sure can lead them.

“I knocked down my own shot, was aggressive, got to the free throw line a couple of times,’’ Garnett said. “Those are the things that we are going to need, especially taking pressure off Paul, pressure off Rajon, pressure off Ray, continuing to keep Perk composed and confident and letting him play. Just bring energy, just wreaking havoc out there.’’

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

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