WALTHAM - Kevin Garnett is in his own world before games, and if you try to enter that world, you do so at your own peril. Garnett is polished and personable, but from the time he arrives at the arena to the start of the game, he morphs into his basketball alter ego, a gruff, glowering forward whose intensity is intimidating and inspiring.
So, it was unusual to see Garnett warmly greet his counterpart, Pistons power forward Rasheed Wallace, prior to Tuesday's tipoff of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The gesture was small; its significance was not.
There are few players in the NBA Garnett respects as much as Wallace. He looks forward to their matchups. They share a friendship and, according to Garnett, a lot more.
"I see a lot of myself when I see him play and vice versa," said Garnett, after the Celtics' 88-79 Game 1 win. "He plays with energy and his heart and his soul. I commend that. I don't think a lot of guys do that."
While both players show uncommon versatility for big men, few would immediately associate them. The 6-foot-11-inch Garnett is an 11-time All-Star, former league MVP, and one of the game's great ambassadors.
The 6-11 Wallace is a four-time All-Star, has helped the Pistons to two NBA Finals, and won a ring with them in 2004, when he came over from Atlanta in a three-team deal that also involved the Celtics shipping Mike James to Detroit. However, Wallace's game is overshadowed by his combustible personality and penchant for on-court outbursts. He is annually among the NBA's leaders in technical fouls (he finished third in the league this season with 12).
Garnett said Wallace is misunderstood, his passion mistaken for petulance.
"I just think that people see what they want to see and that's what it is," said Garnett. "Seeing who he really is, I don't think he lets too many people into his own personal [life], but I do know that he's very, very smart, very, very entertaining. He's energy. He's heart and soul. You can go over there and ask any of those guys, they know that.
"When you're an emotional player and you play with your heart like that, sometimes it comes out in different ways. I'm not a walk in the park myself when it comes to technicals. I love the way 'Sheed plays. He's one of the hardest people to guard in this league."
Wallace, 33, and Garnett, who turned 32 Monday, entered the league together in 1995. Wallace was the fourth overall pick, taken by Washington, and Garnett, straight out of high school, went next to Minnesota. They competed against each other for seven years in the Western Conference after Wallace was dealt to Portland in 1996.
Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, who played with Garnett in Minnesota for two seasons, said Garnett and Wallace have always relished their rivalry.
"Oh, yeah, being with KG in Minnesota, he always looked forward to that matchup with 'Sheed and he loved and respected his game so much," said Billups. "And being here, it's the same. I know that 'Sheed really respects KG's game and what he puts into it and the way he respects the game. It's just a mutual respect."
Wallace agreed. "Both of us love the game, put our heart and soul into it," he said.
Wallace, who is part of a balanced Pistons lineup that includes Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince, said he appreciates how Garnett has blended his game with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to revitalize the Celtics.
"We've both had to sacrifice some of our game to do what's best for our teams. And we're both all about one thing - winning. You can't help but respect a cat who comes at the game like that," said Wallace, who averaged 12.7 points and 6.6 rebounds during the regular season and is averaging 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in the postseason.
Garnett and the Celtics got the better of Wallace in Game 1. With the two spending a lot of time guarding each other, Garnett had 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists, while Wallace shot 3 for 12 and finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Garnett bristled when asked about winning the statistical battle in the opener of the series. He knows that with Wallace he can't gloat because the next game he could be on the wrong end. The winner of their personal matchup could go a long way to deciding who wins the series.
"The crazy thing about it, the way they go at it, it's like they're not even friends," said Pierce. "But they're good friends off the court. It's like two guys fighting for the same thing."
The fight goes on, but so does the admiration. So, Wallace and Garnett will continue to embrace before games and seek each other out after them. They share a common goal and a common bond.
"Rasheed doesn't care if you like him or if you hate him, but the man can play the game of basketball," said Garnett. "I've always said that he and Joe Johnson are probably the most underrated in our league. I don't think 'Sheed wants the notoriety or whatever. I think he's complacent with just going out and kicking [butt] and just being a beast out there. We've always respected each other just because of [our] growth and how we came in."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.