BOSTON -- There's plenty of areas for the Boston Celtics to clean up through five games this season, but at the top of coach Doc Rivers' to-do list -- written in bold with a couple underlines -- is figuring out a way to avoid the drop-offs that have occurred when Kevin Garnett is not on the floor.
Allow Rajon Rondo to explain why that's an issue.
"Nothing is happening right [without Garnett]," said Rondo. "It's just chaos."
Following last year's postseason trend, the Celtics are a remarkably different team when Garnett is on the floor versus when he's on the bench. Through five games, Boston is plus-2.8 per 48 minutes when Garnett is on the floor, but a cringe-worthy minus-15.5 points per 48 minutes when Garnett is on the bench (if you look at the raw numbers, Boston is plus-9 overall with Garnett; minus-30 without him).
Opponents are exploiting a weakened Celtics defense when Garnett is not around to protect the basket, often attacking the rim without consequence. Rivers suggested it is just as big of a problem on the offensive end, where the Celtics lose one of their only post presences and someone able to generate quality looks by passing out of double teams.
"We've just got to do a better job when Kevin's not on the floor," said Rondo. "I'm sure the plus/minus with him on the floor -- they showed it during the playoffs last year -- and right now it's carrying over. When Kevin goes out, things change. Teams go on runs for some reason the past couple games. We've got to take the challenge as a team, try to find a way to stop those type of runs when he does go out of the game, because he's going to come out."
During the 2012 playoffs, the Celtics outscored their opponents by nearly nine points per 48 minutes when Kevin Garnett was on the floor, but were outscored by a jaw-dropping 23.8 points per 48 minutes when he was on the bench.
Rivers stressed that Boston's inability to sustain its play at either end without Garnett is maybe the biggest reason his team is 2-3 to start the new season.
"Right now, if y’all want to focus on something, that’s what you should focus on: What are we going to do when Kevin goes off the floor in the first half? Because every time we do it -- and we have to do it -- we’re struggling," said Rivers. "That’s on me, I gotta figure that out. Because he’s not going to be on the floor, he’s coming out. He’s coming out at the exact time and we have to figure out something to make us click. And I think it’s on both ends, I don’t think it’s just our defense goes down. I think our offense really struggles when he goes out. We have do something about it."
Alas, there's no obvious solution. Celtics players pointed to better communication, but Garnett's instincts and knowledge are hard to replicate, even as he tries to tutor younger players on the team.
"I try to teach some things that I know to some of the younger guys, if not everybody," said Garnett. "The things that I know have been over a course of a couple decades and I've understood how to play this game, I've understood my role at this point in my career. And a lot of the things is just how hard I'm doing it. I talk very loud, I'm continuous with some of the things that I do, and I try to carry that over on the offensive end when I'm trying to be aggressive.
"But, the things that I know are through experience and trying to give that to a younger guy or somebody who hasn't played in the league that long is difficult at times. But I try to lead by example. Anybody that's looking to learn, I'm always open to teach. And no one said this thing is going to be easy. Sometimes the darker days or the harder days are some of the most obvious days. It shows you who's with you, who's willing to fight, who's willing to be in the hole with you. So this is showing a lot."
Celtics players seem to fall back to one common thread: communication. Boston has to figure out a way to replace Garnett's voice on the floor.
The Celtics have leaned on Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass -- a pair of young, undersized power forwards -- to shoulder the load up front. Even against opponents with smaller lineups, Boston has struggled to protect the rim (even when Garnett is on the floor).
Rivers doesn't plan to overreact and suggested that pure big men like Darko Milicic and Jason Collins will remain role players. The Celtics have gotten a recent, small-doses boost from Chris Wilcox, but even his energy hasn't been enough to fully mask Garnett's departure.
Rondo suggested the fix is as simple as following Garnett's lead, particularly that communication.
"Kevin does a great job of talking, just follow the leader," said Rondo. "It's not as hard as it seems. It's a matter of just, some guys don't talk. And for us, we need guys to come out of their comfort zone and do something that they're not comfortable with."
This is a familiar problem for the Celtics, whose struggles last season were often traced to new faces who were still learning the importance of communication in Boston's game plan. Rivers views the Garnett lulls as a far higher priority than the much ballyhooed transitional starting lineup.
"I will say this, guys: This lineup stuff [reporters] talk about, it lasts for four minutes, then we switch the lineup. It’s the whole game that matters. Do you think who starts -- I could start everybody on our bench tomorrow, you think it’s going to matter at the end of the game? Really? That’s the way I think. I don’t know, clearly you guys don’t think that way. But that’s how I think. I don’t think who starts matters. It’s who plays well, it’s who plays the most minutes, and that’s what we are focused on. I don’t think there’s a guy in that locker room gives a flying crap about who starts."