By the numbers
Kevin Garnett: 54 G, 54 GS, 20.5 MPG, 6.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG, .441 FG%, .000 3P%, .809 FT%, 13.3 PER
Jonas Valanciunas: 81 G, 81 GS, 28.2 MPG, 11.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, .531 FG%, .000 3P%, .762 FT%, 16.1 PER
Jonas Valanciunas had a solid sophomore season with the Raptors, averaging close to nine rebounds in under 30 minutes per game, starting in 81 games, and emerging as a legitimate post-up option and pick-and-roll threat with parter-in-screen Kyle Lowry. He’s made huge strides in his second season on the defensive end, notably in securing defensive rebounds.
I’m saying nice things about the 21-year-old Valanciunas because he deserves it. He’s a really good basketball player and a legitimate seven-footer that will make an impact in this series.
But if Kevin Garnett is healthy, if 2014 pre-spasm Kevin Garnett shows up, that changes everything.
Let’s roll back a bit. Kevin Garnett has played 5,033 playoff minutes in his career. His matchup, Jonas Valanciunas, has played exactly zero. This specific matchup certainly seems to highlight the entire series: old versus young, the long, spindly tortoise versus the green hare.
Garnett thrives in tense, nerve-wracking situations: he’ll frustrate opponents, get in their head, pop a baseline jumper and then scream in his man’s face. He’s crafty, with thirteen years of playoff basketball under his belt.
Garnett’s not a scorer, and his per-game numbers aren’t much to write home about. Since January 1st, he’s averaging just 6.5 points and 6.3 rebounds in 19.5 minutes per game, though he is shooting 55.6 percent from the field in that time.
But Garnett isn’t the focal point on offense: it’s his historic defensive acumen and IQ that the Nets traded for, and with him playing center akin to Doc Rivers’s lineups in Boston, it’s been a success. Since the Nets stuck with the Livingston-at-guard, Garnett-at-center lineup, the team’s allowed a staggeringly low 95.6 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor. Over a full season, that would rank as the top defense in the NBA:
Conversely, the Raptors, who boast the ninth-best defense in the NBA for the season, are a tad worse defensively with Valanciunas on the floor. That said, the Raptors are also much better offensively with Valanciunas on the court, and the Nets are worse with Garnett. You could make the argument that defense matters more in the playoffs, but you’ve also still got to score.
So it’s a wash. If Valanciunas can keep Garnett out of his head and keep himself out of foul trouble, the Toronto younger has plenty of sly post moves in his offensive arsenal, but Garnett’s resume, experience, and basketball IQ speak for itself.
Garnett appears to be healthy after sitting out for 19 games with back spasms, an unpredictable injury. A fresh Kevin Garnett will cause nightmares for any Raptors player (just ask Jose Calderon).
So we called this one even. But it’s not really even, it’s all or nothing. If he’s the sharp, January-February Garnett, hounding opposing offenses, hitting mid-range jumpers, and barking on defense for every second he’s on the floor, then Valanciunas is in for a rude welcoming to the playoffs.
But as much as we want to believe Garnett is an unflappable, perfect measure of playoff greatness, 37-year-olds with back injuries tend to have them crop up. He’s well-rested because he was hurt. If he’s creaky, Valanciunas should be able to take advantage of a Blatche-Plumlee frontline, and a lingering issue could send him into retirement.
Note: with additional reporting and analysis from Devin Kharpertian.