BOSTON -- It's not about Perk.
The Boston Celtics are struggling since trading Kendrick Perkins, no question about it. After Perk's new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, came into Boston and won 97-88 on Monday, the Celtics are now 19-20 since shipping out their center at last season's trade deadline, including 4-8 this season. The loss was the fifth straight for Boston -- its longest skid since acquiring Kevin Garnett in 2007.
Perk's Oklahoma City team, meanwhile, is a league-best 12-2. Since acquiring Perkins, the Thunder have gone 31-9 over the past two seasons.
And yet, it's hard to point to Perkins as the major catalyst for either side. The 27-year-old big man had seven points and five rebounds in his return to Boston, where he spent the first seven-plus years of his career. On the game's first possession, Perkins posted up Jermaine O'Neal, tried a running hook in the lane, and missed the rim by a foot to the right.
No, the factors behind Oklahoma City's league-leading start and the Celtics' limp to start the season are much deeper than just a role-playing, dirty-work center. Boston appears to be in the death throes of the Garnett-Allen-Pierce nucleus; we're not ready to read last rites just yet but the patient is definitely critical. That was going to be the case whether Perkins, O'Neal or Doc Rivers was the starting center. (O'Neal, for the record, badly outplayed his opposite number, with only his second double-double since becoming a Boston Celtic.)
It's hard to convince the Boston faithful of this fact, however, as Perk's trade was the line of demarcation for when the Celtics' old warhorses started showing their age. The TD Garden crowd gave Perk a long ovation in pregame introductions, and again when the Celtics showed a video tribute to his Boston years during the first timeout. (Side note: As a franchise, Boston remains one of the league's classiest acts.)
But let's face an honest truth: Perk can't fix what's wrong with Boston right now. He can't make the other players younger or the bench players capable of scoring or fix a score of other weaknesses.
Most notably, Kevin Garnett can't jump. This fact wasn't immediately apparent when I watched the Celtics on television, but it's hammer-you-over-the-head obvious in person. The most telling point of the game was in the second quarter, when Garnet caught the ball late in the shot clock with Perkins on him, took a dribble to the left and quick-shot it to get it over the closing Perkins.
Read that again. Garnett, who with his length and leaping ability had historically gotten his shot off on whomever he pleased whenever he pleased, had to slide back and quick-hoist one because it was going back in his face if he didn't.
That wasn't the only time it happened; on another foray down a wide-open lane, Garnett ended up shooting a teardrop. That it went in was a testament to his skill level; that he had to shoot it was testament to how little lift he has right now.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story behind the 2011-12 Celtics. Garnett, the linchpin of one of the best defensive teams in NBA history over the past four seasons, can't get off the ground, and it's affecting his game at every level. Monday night he used 25 possessions to produce 12 points, with several close-in shots providing particularly poignant reminders. One close-in flip that would have been a dunk two years ago went in, but another was instead rejected by Serge Ibaka.
Last season, Garnett made a staggering impact defensively. Boston gave up 6.19 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court than off it, and the Celtics already were among the league's best defensive teams without him. According to basketballvalue.com, only one player -- Chicago's Ronnie Brewer -- had opponents score less when he was on the court than Garnett's 97.84 points per 100 possessions.
This season, Garnett is nowhere to be found on that leaderboard; Boston gives up the same amount whether he's on the court or off it, even though his replacement is normally the defensive suspect Brandon Bass.
In a related story, Boston's defense has gone from spectacular to ordinary. The Celtics were second in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season; they entered Monday's game ranked 16th. So while their offense has been almost exactly the same as last season, they've fallen several notches defensively.
That's why the focus on Paul Pierce's conditioning or Rajon Rondo's hey-where's-everybody-else solo transition forays or the lack of production from the bench misses the point right now.
Boston's once-dominating defense is just ordinary now, and a big reason is because the anchor of that unit for the past half-decade simply isn't moving or jumping well enough to be a difference-maker.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the boards, where the Celtics are getting pounded on a nightly basis. Ironically, Monday night was one game in which the opposite was the case -- the Thunder have struggled to rebound almost as much as Boston has.
Nonetheless, the dropoff in Garnett's rebounding numbers is telling. Garnett rebounded 17.5 percent of missed shots when he was on the floor last season; entering this game, he was at just 13.5 percent. On the defensive glass, he's down from 28.7 percent to 22.2 percent -- a big factor in Boston's 25th-place standing in defensive rebound rate as a team entering Monday's game.
As a result, the Celtics are 4-8, and it's not even a good 4-8. Boston has played the league's seventh-easiest schedule entering Monday's slate of games, with Detroit (3-10) being the best team it has beaten all season. Of the other three wins, two were against the Wizards, and the third came against a New Jersey team missing Deron Williams and Kris Humphries.
The Celtics will have better nights, to be sure. Pierce looked more spry than in recent games and scored a team-high 24 points. Mickael Pietrus gave the bench some missing offense and floor-spacing, and together with Marquis Daniels provided some sharp wing defense for a second unit that kept Oklahoma City sixth man James Harden (five points) in check. And O'Neal's effort had to be encouraging.
Those all are secondary issues, unfortunately. For Boston right now, it's less a case of half-full versus half-empty and more a case of trying to find any water in the glass at all. The Perkins trade may have been the tipping point, but Monday night underlined that the Celtics have far bigger problems than the absence of a popular role player.