The Knicks and Celtics, for all their east coast rivalry and embittered history, share the common trait of being very, very old. And while experience, savvy, and the ever sought after “veteran leadership” is as well and good, injuries become an increasingly big part of the everyday reality of the team. This series in particular features two teams with banged up centers that play pivotal roles in the success of each team, and the series may just hinge on who gets healthiest first.
Kevin Garnett has been battling injuries for the last couple months, and although much of it may have been precautionary, missed ten of the last thirteen games of the regular season. The wear and tear on his body was uncomfortably noticeable for the Celtics, as he went 4-12 from the field and played very slow on defense. Garnett’s defensive woes are most worrisome for Boston, as this season (and for the duration of his time in Boston, really) he has been the defensive stopgap for an otherwise inept defense. This season Boston goes from a first ranked defensive team (96.2 points per 100 possessions) to a 21st ranked defense (104.6 points per 100 possessions) when Garnett is on the bench.
Garnett is roughly in the top 15 percentile in the league in isolation, pick and roll, and spot up defense for the season and yet, as the clip shows, he struggled in these areas in game one. KG had difficulty fighting through screens and Raymond Felton in particular turned the corner on him in the pick and roll with frightening amounts of ease.
Watch Garnett on these plays, he lacks the position and the recovery speed to blow up pick and rolls like he used to, as recently as a month ago. The Knicks let the Celtics get away with this porous pick and roll coverage by going isolation for much of the game but the Knicks will see KG’s play on tape and you can be sure that Felton is going to attack him in the pick and roll every opportunity he gets in game 2.
Meanwhile, the Knicks’ offense was suffering from its own ailing center problems. Tyson Chandler’s movement slowly deteriorated into a hobbled shuffling as the game progressed and forced New York to rely on Kenyon Martin playing the 5 for much of the second half. The defensive impact of losing an effective Chandler is obvious, but his offensive impact is a little more difficult to see.
Lost in the defensive accolades that Tyson deservedly receives, is his incredible play in the pick and roll. Per SynergySports he is 5th in the league as the roll man in the pick and roll, scoring an insanely high 1.33 points per possession and shooting 67.7 percent from the field. What’s even more effective than the production of the play itself is the overall impact it has on the offense, giving space to the pick and roll ball handler and the shooters on the perimeter when the defense is forced to crash into the paint.
This dynamic was noticeably lacking in this game, as Tyson took zero shots and grabbed just five rebounds in his twenty minutes of play. Even worse was that his usually bone jarring screens were lack luster to say the least and his defender panic-inducing rolls to the rim were nearly nonexistent.
In the first clip, Tyson can’t set a proper screen on Pierce to free up Felton and his subsequent roll to the rim consists of getting man-handled by the older and much smaller Celtic. The next clip has Tyson again failing to set a proper pick and almost causes Felton to turn the ball over with the lack of space he gives him. He eventually gets free on his roll to the rim but Felton is well defended and the play ends in an unsurprising disaster of a Shumpert iso. The final clip has Chandler letting Green go under the screen, getting chucked by Bradley, and having the much more impeded Felton beat him to the rim.
Needless to say both teams rely a lot on their centers on both sides of the ball. Boston has struggled for years trying to find a big that can even partially make up the value KG has given them, and as of yet have failed. Kenyon Martin helped save the Knicks in the second half but the 35 year old forward with 55 year old knees is hardly the player you want to rely on as your crunch time center. It is a race between Garnett and Chandler to see who gets healthy first, and the winner may just change the series in their team’s favor.