We expect a lot. Sixteen points and 10 rebounds in a road playoff game would be a fine night for most NBA players. Bill Russell had a few games like that and I don't remember anyone asking, "What's wrong with the Big Fella?"
But it was hard to watch Kevin Garnett at the Palace of Auburn Hills Monday. The Celtics were struggling in the fourth quarter of a game that was still winnable . . . and Garnett disappointed and disappeared. He scored 3 points (1 for 4 from the floor) and committed two turnovers in the final period.
Three times down the stretch, Garnett took a pass, had an open look, and kicked it back out. He opted for jumpers instead of taking the ball to the basket. One pass bounced off his chest and went out of bounds. Pistons fans taunted Garnett, chanting, "Timberwolf for life."
Ouch. It's OK to be a president for life, or maybe a Yankee for life, or certainly smoke-free for life. But nobody wants "Timberwolf for life" on his tombstone.
Which brings us to the problem. It is universally accepted that more is expected of those to whom more is given. That is why we expect so much from Garnett. That is why we still wonder whether he is the player who can lead these Celtics to the promised land. That is why we wonder whether he is just very good and not Russell/Larry Bird great.
Garnett can do just about everything there is to do on a basketball court. He's a 7-foot guy who can swish the 18-footer, handle the ball like a guard, and defend like Lawrence Taylor. He is the consummate teammate - dishing off, calling out switches, and getting in the faces of the young bucks who sometimes need to be told how it's done. Russell himself said he thinks of Garnett the way he thinks of his own children.
Given the choice between Garnett and Rasheed Wallace, we'd take Garnett 100 times out of 100. He is outplaying 'Sheed in the series.
Kevin Garnett is the reason the Celtics are still playing. He is the reason Boston went from 24 to 66 wins in a single season. It's not Paul Pierce. It's not Ray Allen. It's not the terrific bench Danny Ainge assembled. It's not Wyc Grousbeck's leadership, Doc Rivers's coaching, or Gino's dancing.
Garnett is the difference. He's the one who changed everything - the same way Tom Brady changed everything when he took over as starting quarterback of the Patriots.
But unlike Brady, Garnett still has something to prove. He needs to prove that he's more than just a wildly skilled, very good player. He needs to show us that he's more than a Timberwolf for life. How can we live in a world in which 'Sheed has a ring and Garnett does not?
Garnett is paid like a superstar. He finished third in the MVP voting and is internationally acclaimed as one of the best players of all time. But he hasn't been a champion, and this is his time to step up and take over in the big moments of the biggest games. Statistically, he's had a good playoff run. He leads the Celtics with 20.7 points per game in this series. But he needs to do more.
Maybe we ask too much. Garnett's game is not a low-post, back-to-the-basket game. He's never going to be Wilt Chamberlain or even Karl Malone in the low block.
"There were times where I just thought we didn't get it to him, and then he ended up floating out because of the ball being on the other side," said Rivers. "He was running out setting picks. But we didn't do a good job of establishing him to the post and we have to do a better job of that.
"Kevin did the right thing. We got it to him on the post and he gave it back up because they were doubling. He's a smart ballplayer and he does the right thing."
But there are other ways Garnett can grab this series by the throat and take the Celtics to the Finals.
It's rare that we've seen a more intense competitor. Garnett's game face and pregame rituals are the stuff of legend. You watch him interact before the opening tap and you think he has the fire of Bob Gibson or Frank Robinson. You watch him get in Rajon Rondo's grille and you think you're seeing Tedy Bruschi with steam spewing from his nostrils. You watch him at the end of regular-season blowouts, standing at the end of the bench, urging his teammates to keep pouring it on. Don't let up. Take no prisoners.
And you want him to bring that fire to the final six minutes of a close playoff game. You want him to take charge. The hell with kicking it back out. Turn and power toward the basket. Don't settle for soft jumpers. Convince us that you want the ball at the end of the game.
If Garnett puts his head down and draws a charge, we promise not to say he was trying to force things. We won't accuse him of being selfish or not trusting his teammates.
This is his time. Time to say, "Hop on my back, fellas." Time to beat the Pistons in two of the last three games and bring Boston back to the Finals.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.