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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pose(y)ing the Question

By Ian Tasso

Editorial. Photos by AP News

Losing Kevin Garnett made the Boston Celtics' title defense near impossible. But did the absence of a certain 6’9 forward push it over the edge?

After becoming an unrestricted free-agent in the summer of 2008, James Posey vocalized his desire to return to the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately, on July 16, Posey signed with the New Orleans Hornets, making one thing terribly obvious to Celtics fans.

They better keep their fingers crossed.

In not resigning Posey, Celtics management took an outright gamble on their depth. They made it clear that they felt even without Posey’s athleticism, clutch defense, and hot shooting, they could make a run at a 2009 title. They were right.

But unfortunately, they were also unlucky.

The moment Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury, the Achilles Heel in the Boston Celtics was exposed. Depth. Not just at the big men positions, or the point guards. Every position.

The thought came to me after watching Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals. People call Kobe the best closer in the NBA, and its tough to argue with it. When the Lakers lead late in the game and Kobe controls the ball, it’s about as over as this year’s NBA Finals.

Kobe is like an actual Closer in every sense of the name. I mean, think about it. When Jonathan Papelbon comes into the game, you can assure yourself that 90% of the time, that game is absolutely over, no questions asked. Similarly, if Kobe is making shots, and the Lakers lead by ten with a quarter left, you can stamp that case ‘closed.’

The Celtics don’t have Kobe – not many teams do. Instead, they have Paul Pierce. If Kobe is the Papelbon of the league, then I’d say it’s safe to anoint Pierce as K-Rod. Especially when you consider the years both had in 2008. K-Rod set a saves record, and Pierce closed his way to an NBA Title.

But this year was different. Definitely without Kevin Garnett. But also because the Truth wasn’t his old self. When the clock wound down, Pierce no longer had the same ‘killer instinct’ Celtics fans had become so used to seeing in 2008 especially. He missed game-winning free-throws. He clunked those patented elbow fall-aways. And worst of all, he turned the ball over in crucial moments of the game.

Is the Truth on the decline? Absolutely not. But was there a reason he was less effective late in games than usual? Absolutely.

And that reason is because the Celtics missed James Posey a lot more than people want to admit.

When James Posey left Boston to sign with New Orleans, the Celtics and Boston media downplayed the loss. Absolutely nobody in the Boston area thought the loss of James Posey would prevent them from grabbing banner number 18.

But without Kevin Garnett, the gaping hole left by Jimmy Po grew from a simple tear to an absolute wormhole.

First off, the Celtics missed Posey’s defense. He was the first off the bench in every single Celtic’s playoff game in 2008. Compare that to Eddie House in 2009.

Don’t get me wrong, Eddie is a lights-out shooter when he’s on, and is extremely valuable to the Boston franchise. But he isn’t the defensive mastermind that Posey was. Posey was a long, quick defender, who could be physical, and shut down the best of them.

Including LeBron James. In the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, James was rendered a bystander in six of the seven games in the series. That’s because he was tag teamed by a ferocious defensive duo of Paul Pierce and James Posey. Not only did the two effectively shut him down, but most importantly, Posey's skills allowed Pierce to rest often. When Pierce showed fatigue, Posey was able to come in without missing a beat, shutting down LeBron, and keeping Pierce's legs fresh. So he could nail the coffin shut in the final seconds of Game Seven, even after draining 41 points. You'd think a 31 year old would be tired after all that.

But thanks to James Posey, he wasn't.

Posey was also extremely clutch. When he wasn't knocking down huge three's, he was winning games in other ways. In Game Six of last year's Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, Boston was up by four late in the game and inching ever closer to an NBA Finals berth. Then, the dagger came. And it came from Posey's hand.

With 1:35 left in the game, James Posey stole the inbounds off a sleeping Tayshaun Prince, nails his free throws, and essentially ices the game. The Celtics make the Finals. It wouldn’t have happened then without Posey, and it didn’t happen in 2009 without him.

On top of his knack for big plays, Posey also gave the green the ability to effectively spread the floor.

For example, many point to the reason Cleveland lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals as a match-up flaw. It absolutely was.

It was the same match-up flaw that allowed Boston to defeat those same Cavaliers in 2008. Similar to 2009, the Cavaliers had no big men that could hold down the middle against a dominant force; Kevin Garnett in ‘08, and Dwight Howard in ’09. Because of an often relied on double team down low, the Cavs then were forced to match up undersized forwards and guards Deltone West (6’3), Devin Brown (6'5, in 2008), and Mo Williams (6’1, in 2009) on taller, longer, accurate shooters; Ray Allen (6’5), Paul Pierce (6’7), and James Posey off the bench (6’8) in 2008; and Rashard Lewis (6’10), Hedo Turkoglu (6’10), and Mickael Peitrus off the bench (6’8) in 2009.

Similar match ups. Similar results. A Cleveland loss.

To think that 2009 would have been any different would be foolish. But in the summer of 2008, the Celtics took a gamble. And in the summer of 2009, it bit them in the ass.

That’s because most importantly, James Posey gave the Celtics fresh legs. By not resigning Posey, Boston was praying that those legs would stay healthy. But when Garnett went down, they became thin, and more tired.

In last year’s playoffs when Pierce tired from covering LeBron James and Kobe Bryant all game, James Posey came in to spell the Truth. And he did it well. You seldom saw big leads trickle away while Posey was in the game for Pierce. Instead, in 2009, the Celtics were caught trying to plug a leaky pipe with toilet paper and duct tape.

In ’08, they could shove a cork in that baby.

Where was Posey when Pierce had to run around John Salmons and Hedo Turkoglu for a total of 14 games and 7 overtimes?

He was in New Orleans, scoring 12 points a game in the playoffs – five more than with Boston in 2008.

And meanwhile, Turkoglu shot his way into being labeled by ESPN as the Magic’s “end-of-game clutch shooter.” Last year that was Pierce. But in 2009, Pierce, a year older, was just too gassed to keep up late in the game, and Turkoglu took advantage.

The Celtic’s big three aren’t over the hill by any stretch. But they are getting older. All that means is that the Celtic’s bench needs to be able to fill in while the starters catch their breath. Posey gave them the ability to do just that, and win an eventual NBA Title.

The Celtics can point to the loss of Kevin Garnett all they want, but the bottom line is Banner 18 became a bit of a long shot the second Posey departed for New Orleans.

Lets just hope this year’s Free Agency is more fruitful. Number one on the shopping list: find a 2010 James Posey.

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