WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) " The Big Three is down to Two.
Celtics star Kevin Garnett, the centerpiece of Boston's 2008 championship and a key to its hopes of a repeat, could miss the playoffs because of a knee injury that has limited him to four games over the final two months of the season.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Thursday that Garnett will not be ready for Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls and possibly won't be back at all.
"It's not official that he's out for the entire playoffs, but it's official as far as I'm concerned," Rivers said before practice at the team's workout facility. "I just don't see how. I hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see it."
Garnett has been the Celtics' inspirational leader since joining them in a 2007 trade that completed the new Big Three and propelled the franchise to its record 17th NBA title. He averaged 15.8 and 8.5 rebounds per game for the defending champions this season.
"I'm devastated for him," Celtics guard Ray Allen said. "This is the time of year you've been waiting for."
Garnett injured his right knee Feb. 19 and missed the next 13 games before returning for four and playing a total of 66 minutes, 18 seconds. With the Celtics assured of a high playoff berth, Rivers then held Garnett out with an eye toward bringing him back for the last three games of the regular season; that became the last two, then the last one, but he never made it back.
Rivers said Thursday he watched Garnett run at the team's practice facility and said he had to shut him down after 20 minutes because his leg was locking up. Rivers knew he made the right call when Garnett didn't put up a fight.
"He's done everything he could do to get back on the floor," the coach said. "You could tell he was trying to mask that there was pain."
Boston was 18-7 without Garnett this year and finished the season 62-20 " second in the Eastern Conference, but not good enough to secure the home-court advantage that proved crucial in last year's title run. Should the Celtics meet the Cavaliers in the conference finals, they would open the series in Cleveland; the Los Angeles Lakers also would have home-court in a potential NBA finals matchup.
But, without Garnett, what had seemed like an easy road through the early rounds has gotten more difficult.
"If you get to the last game and hoist another banner, the adversity makes it that much sweeter," Allen said. "We've got to find that formula. So we look forward to it."
Garnett was at the team's practice facility on Thursday but did not want to talk to reporters, Rivers said.
At their practice facility in Deerfield, Ill., the Bulls weren't buying it.
"Knowing him, he'll play if his leg is broke," Chicago guard Derrick Rose said.
In the Red Auerbach era, the Celtics were often accused of turning off the heat and hot water in the visitors' locker room.
Could the Leprechaun be up to his old tricks?
"I'm not going to think that much into it," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "I'm going to think about what we need to do and prepare either way."
Even without Garnett, the Bulls would have to prepare for a defending champion with two All-Stars " Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, a speedy point guard in Rajon Rondo and Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who has been coming on since replacing Garnett in the lineup.
But it won't be the same.
"Whenever you take a guy like that out, your team's just not going to be as good," Del Negro said. "Talent is talent. Kevin ... has found his niche in Boston with Ray and Paul, and they won a championship. They're a different team, no question, but they're still very potent. They've won over 60 games and probably would have won close to 70 if he was healthy."
Though Garnett did not appear at games while he was recuperating in the regular season, he is expected to travel with the Celtics and sit on the bench.
"He's the unquestioned leader of the ballclub. He can help us just by being on the bench," forward Paul Pierce said. "The type of competitiveness that he has, I'm sure it's eating at him."
Garnett originally got hurt against the Utah Jazz, and after missing a month he returned with his playing time limited. But after four games, he aggravated the injury against Orlando while jumping for a rebound; there was no contact with any other players.
Rivers said he was concerned initially because injuries where there is no contact sometimes are more serious than first expected. But he was encouraged by the progress Garnett had been making.
"I'm surprised because he looked so good last week," Rivers said.
Rivers said Garnett has a bone spur in the knee that will need surgery after the playoffs, but that it is not related to the strained tendon that is bothering him now. There was nothing the Celtics could have done differently in treating the injury, the coach said.
"We are confident that he is going to be absolutely fine, 100 percent, over the long term," Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said. "The short term is much less clear at this point."
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman contributed to this report from Deerfield, Ill.