Are The Celtics All Bluster, Or Legit Contenders?

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The Celtics are playing better as the regular season winds down, but are they playing well enough to legitimately intimidate playoff-caliber teams? Or just blowing smoke?

All grit and balls? Or all bluster? Kevin Garnett, and his trash-talking antics, are back in the Celtics lineup, and his presence has brought immediate results on the defensive end. While K.G. sat out in order to rest his ailing ankle, the C’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) rose by over 3.5 points. Then, when Garnett returned on Sunday night, Boston’s defense improved drastically as they shut down John Wall and the Wizards. Yet it remained to be seen how the Celts, who are now approaching ‘full strength’ with only four games left in the regular season, would handle a quality playoff team like the Brooklyn Nets.

But they were the ones handled by Brooklyn’s hard-nosed defense and the wily play of Deron Williams as they lost 101 to 93 on Wednesday night. Avery Bradley got into early foul trouble, thus allowing Williams to operate without pressure from the ball-hawking guard. Williams responded by leading the Nets to victory with a 29-point, 12-assist performance, while Bradley was only able to play 12 minutes (5 personal fouls throughout the game).

This is not to say the C’s weren’t competitive. Brandon Bass continued to find his stride in the low-post, and provided the highlight of the night when he rose up and threw it down over Nets center Brook Lopez. Paul Pierce was efficient with 23 points on 11 field goal attempts, and although Jeff Green struggled (4-of-17 from the field), it’s encouraging to see the Celtics new starting small forward embrace his role as an integral part of the offense.

However, the Nets took control of the game with a 14-3 run at the end of the second quarter. They led throughout the remainder of the contest, and Bass failed to score in the second half.

It’s no secret that these teams don’t like each other. They both employ similar, grind-you-down, defensive styles, so when they play, it provides a perfect opportunity for the Celtics to demonstrate that they’re still the biggest bullies in the Eastern Conference. Of course they didn’t hesitate to ‘brawl‘ with the Nets back in late November, and this game ended up pretty chippy as well.

Garnett received his third technical against the Nets this year when he issued a late-elbow after a made jump shot, and he was noticeably verbal after corralling rebounds or hitting shots over opposing big men. This is K.G.’s game, he tries to shake the opposition’s confidence by proving that he is mentally tougher than they are. The question is, does it still work?

Many of us remember this iconic moment in Game 1 of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals. After fouling LeBron James in order to prevent the King from scoring, Garnett lived up to his reputation by jawing at the best player on the planet after the play. While this may have rattled James in year’s past, he was (at least outwardly) rather amused by K.G.’s antics. The fact that the Heat were up by 15 points late in this game, and seemed in control of the series in the early going may have played into it, but James lack of regard for the Celtics in-your-face defensive attitude indicated that the league is seeing through this act to an extent.

Boston will not change it’s approach on the defensive end. Garnett will continue to spearhead that effort by communicating, denying shots (sometimes with a goaltend after the whistle), and when he feels necessary, by verbally abusing anyone who he is matched up with. While this attitude can inspire and embolden his teammates, it may not be that effective anymore.

In any case, the Celtics will need to concentrate on their final few games in order to retain the 7th spot in the East, as they are only 3 games ahead of the Bucks. If it takes K.G. sparking that competitive fire by demonstrating his grit, then that’s all well and good, but if that demonstration becomes more for show than effect, then opposing teams may start to pay little mind to all that bluster.

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