Celtics' stars still have that twinkle
PHOENIX - Kevin Garnett remembers his first All-Star appearance as an overwhelming experience.
But, Garnett recalled, "[Gary Payton] and Shawn Kemp made it very, very relaxing for me. It's good when players like that make it easy for you here. So, I've always sort of attached myself to that."
Garnett was 20 and playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves when he was first chosen. The next year, Garnett was starting to feel like an old-timer as he greeted a teenager named Kobe Bryant.
"When guys come in and they're new - I remember Kobe's first one, [the game] was in New York," said Garnett, a 12-time All-Star who will be part of the East team again tonight. "I just told him, 'Just relax.' When you've got players who sort of look for you and try to make it easy for you, it relaxes you a little bit."
Only seven players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Shaquille O'Neal) will have played in more All-Star Games than Garnett after tonight. But the All-Stars seem to blend together during much of the hyperbolic pregame buildup. Everyone is on common ground here, one of the few times, besides the Olympics, when players don't feel they have to carry their teams. And that can be liberating.
Garnett and Celtics teammates Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are among the most laid-back participants at this event. Though the Celtic All-Stars have been selected a total of 28 times, there is no indication they have become jaded.
When Allen, Garnett, and Pierce teamed up in Boston last season, their careers were rejuvenated. And these All-Star days are having a galvanizing effect.
"I know we actually enjoy it a lot more," Garnett said. "It was huge for us last year, it's even bigger this year.
"I'm happy to actually be here with the other guys. You get used to playing against a lot of guys, but it's great to have them as teammates. No use coming here unless you're having some fun.
"I respect everyone's ability here, how they got here. I respect how they lifted their teams and they've been successful at this point. Everybody is well-deserving."
But this is the Celtic trio's first All-Star Game as members of a championship team. And that separates them from most of their teammates; Miami's Dwyane Wade is the only other Eastern Conference All-Star with a championship ring.
Allen has been wearing his ring, but Garnett and Pierce left theirs under lock and key.
"Obviously, what the whole job centers around is getting to those Finals," Allen said. "But I think sometimes with the players, they see it, but they don't want to see it - they don't want to see it on my finger."
For the Big Three, the ring symbolizes dedication to a team cause. Before last season, their careers were highlighted by individual achievements - All-Star selections and gaudy statistics. Now, the Celtics have a banner and the players have a ring to show off.
"I put it on and looked at it," Garnett said. "And I put it up in a safe place. I look at the pictures and the memories more than pay attention to my actual ring.
"But the memories you look at, it's like looking at a timeline. You put it together and it's precious."
Last season, though the Celtics' modus operandi was all-for-one and their rallying cry was "ubuntu," there was a clear pecking order on offense: Most plays were run for Pierce and Garnett, with Allen the third option. This season, the Celtics have had more games and practice time to set up plays, so Allen's number is called more often. And his statistics reflect his increased role: He's averaging 17.9 points and shooting .491 from the field, up from 17.4 and .445 a year ago. But Allen only joined the All-Star team as an injury replacement, as he did a year ago.
"In order to be good, everyone has to sacrifice," Garnett said. "At the end of the day, we all say, 'What is it going to take to get this win, what is it going to take to be the best?'
"We all come in to work as a group, and, more or less, we've won games because Ray's had huge nights, Paul has finished the fourth quarter for us, myself have been defensively sound throughout the whole game. [Rajon] Rondo has obviously matured, Baby [Glen Davis] and Perk [Kendrick Perkins] have matured, Leon [Powe] and Eddie [House] come in and have been valuable pieces for us.
"We have consistency. Ray's situation is more validating that he's here. More than anything it's our system - it's so built on defense, defense - when it comes to offensive execution, he's been able to do it when he's had to, with 25-, 30-point nights, and carried us. It's real good to have him here."