LOS ANGELES - The Celtics and Lakers play the fourth game of the NBA Finals tonight, and we're still waiting for Kevin Garnett to take control of the series. Or maybe just one game. Or perhaps a single fourth quarter.
We went down this path in earlier rounds. Garnett can be frustrating to watch. He is supposed to be the man for Boston. He's the one who gets the magazine covers and television split screens with Kobe Bryant. Bill Russell said he thinks of Garnett the same way he thinks of his own children.
Garnett is the player who changed everything for the Celtics this season. He is the difference between 24 wins and 66 wins. He finished third in the MVP voting. He is making $23.8 million this season. He is 32 years old, and this might be his one and only shot at an NBA championship. He is the reason the Celtics have a shot at their first banner in 22 years.
So, where is the Big Ticket now that he's finally on the Big Stage?
Garnett is averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds per game in the Finals. He's still playing Rodney Harrison defense. But the stats lie. We want more. His own coach said, "We've got to get Kevin going. Clearly."
Right. We want Garnett to dominate with the basketball. No one can dispute his defensive intensity and impact, but we want him to have a Wilt Chamberlain game, or a Larry Bird game, or a Michael Jordan game. On offense. We want him to take his defensive energy to the other end of the court, especially at the end of close games. Stop floating around the perimeter like an anxious high school sophomore trying to get the nerve to cross the cafeteria floor and ask a cheerleader for a date.
Apparently, this just isn't him. When I wrote much of these same sentiments before the Celtics and Pistons played Game 5 in Boston, Detroit coach Flip Saunders (Garnett's first coach with the Timberwolves) pulled me aside and said, "They wrote that story about him in Minnesota every year."
Garnett made 9 of 22 shots and snatched 13 rebounds in Game 1 against the Lakers. He led the Celtics with 24 points. But Paul Pierce was the story because Pierce was the one who vaulted out of a wheelchair to hit a couple of stake-driving threes in the third quarter.
In Game 2, Garnett scored 17 points with 14 rebounds. He made only 7 of 19 shots. That was the night Pierce scored 28 points and Leon Powe grabbed the headlines with 21 points in less than 15 minutes off the bench.
Garnett staggered out of the blocks in Game 3. He missed two dunks in the first half. He finished with six baskets in 21 attempts. Again, he led the Celtics with 12 rebounds.
Garnett and Pierce (2 for 14) were the Boston story line for Game 3. It was amazing the Celtics had a chance to win a Finals game on the road with Garnett and Pierce making only 8 of 35 shots.
Garnett is playing more than 40 minutes per night in the Finals. But he's made only 22 of 62 shots (35.5 percent). And all the flaws that surfaced in the first three rounds have come back in the Finals.
Too soft on offense. Settles for 18-foot turnarounds when he could go to the basket. Passes too much in crunch time. Doesn't want the ball in his hands at the end of games. Should be powering past Pau Gasol and driving to the basket when he gets isolation. The man is 7 feet tall, for gosh sakes.
Garnett seemed to agree.
"I've got Pau on me," he said after Game 3. "It's not like he's easy when it comes to being a defender. But for the most part, I watched this game. It's not one of my better offensive games, and I'll make adjustments accordingly. But you're right, I probably do need to take the ball to the basket a little more."
It was an amazing admission. Rare is the pro star who'll concede an observation made by a reporter or fan. Nomar Garciaparra, for example, would stick needles in his eyes before admitting that he might not want to swing at every first pitch. He would also insist that today is Friday if you told him it's Thursday.
Asked about Garnett yesterday, Gasol said, "I think his game this year is more on the perimeter than it was in the past. The last couple of games, he hasn't shot as well outside . . . I try to make him fade away as much as possible instead of him going to the basket."
It's hard to know what to make of the overall "fatigue factor." Coach Doc Rivers instructed the Celtics to "get some rest" after Game 3, and Lakers coach Phil Jackson (emerging as a nifty nemesis in this series) noted, "I just think that Kevin kind of ran out of gas. It looked like he was gassed sometime in the fourth quarter."
"I don't think anybody is 100 percent," said Garnett.
"I'm my biggest critic," he said.
He can say that now. But if the Celtics don't win this thing, he'll have some lofty competition back home in New England.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.