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Garnett, Celtics play 'pick-up' game for fans

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 18, 2011 01:43 PM

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It's not all Belichickian doom and gloom on the snow-covered Boston sports scene. In case you were still wallowing in Patriots Pain with your hoodie over your head and missed it, the second-most valuable athlete in Boston sports returned to action last night.

Welcome back, Kevin Garnett. Boy, are you a 7-foot sight for sore eyes after the Patriots' Bloody Sunday.

KG's return came just a day after the unexpected playoff send-off of Tom Brady and the Patriots. Once you readjusted your sporting senses to the fact the good guys were wearing green and white, it was pretty hard not to be downright giddy at the site of Garnett bounding up and down the parquet with alacrity and his trademark intensity in the Celtics' 109-104 victory over the Orlando Magic last night at TD Garden.

Garnett is good to go and so is the pursuit of Banner No. 18.

If Garnett's calf strain left him diminished, the Celtics' days as a title contender were numbered, to borrow a phrase from bigmouth Bart Scott. Instead, Garnett looked unaffected after missing nine games, playing 31 minutes and contributing 19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals -- the last of which was a positively Havlicekian swipe with 15.9 seconds left that sealed the game.

With all due respect to the Patriots, the Celtics always were the outfit that started play last fall that was billed as championship-or-bust. They have the offense and the defense and they're a special team. What's clear is that the Celtics' run of success has legs as long as Garnett does. His strained calf in Detroit on Dec. 29 was a fender bender and not a four-car pileup.

Disaster averted, season saved.

"I said to somebody else that we look like a totally different team just with Kevin on the court," said Paul Pierce. "You can't replace what Kevin gives to a ball club. It doesn't always show up with his numbers but his presence and his feel for the game and everything he does for this team goes far beyond the numbers, and you see it tonight. We look like a team who is ready, who is energized, who is locked in, and you know that's the culture he's brought here since Day One. It's infectious. He raises everyone's level of play when he's on the court."

Garnett said the past couple of weeks were dark days for him (we know the feeling, Kevin).

However, the Celtics and coach Doc Rivers dealt well with Garnett's absence. The progeny of the parquet were without Garnett on the court for 19 days, and they managed not to lose any ground to the Miami Heat.

The Celtics went 6-3, sans Garnett, and after last night's win woke up this morning at 31-9, two games up on the South Florida front-runners and 3.5 ahead of the Bulls for homecourt in the Eastern Conference. When Garnett went down in Motown the Celtics were only a game up on the other three in Miami.

Home court is going to be crucial for the Celtics in the playoffs. The East is simply too deep and too tough for the Celtics to get away with the regular-season truancy they displayed last season and still end up back in the NBA Finals. That's why any extended absence for Garnett would have been damaging to the cause of keeping the Green on Causeway Street when the snow melts.

In the here and now, Garnett's return was not just an emotional lift, but a physical one as well, because size is a rare commodity for the injury-ravaged Celtics. Kendrick Perkins's return is still at least a few weeks away and the extended warranty on Jermaine O'Neal's knee is well past expiration. Rivers had no choice last night but to squeeze eight-plus minutes out of Luke Harangody at power forward.

Plus, KG gives the Celtics an edge. Garnett might be a bully sometimes, but he's our bully. Ask Jason Richardson, who must have felt like he ran into Vince Wilfork after Garnett leveled him on a first quarter screen that freed up Ray Allen for a long jumper.

Even better was that Garnett returned against the Magic and not your assorted Clevelands or Washingtons or New Jerseys. This is a team the Celtics could see in the playoffs -- again -- and last night's game felt like a postseason contest.

The extreme-makeover Magic defeated the Celtics on Christmas Day in Orlando in a game the Celtics led practically the whole way before the fourth quarter became bombs away. Boston was determined to close it out this time, taking over after the teams were tied at 104 with 51.1 seconds to go.

Rivers said Garnett's defensive presence and his vocal adrenaline were key down the stretch. It was defense, Garnett's forte, that made the difference for the Celtics, who found themselves in a nip and tuck affair despite shooting 60 percent from the floor, thanks to the Magic's 3-point marksmanship (11 of 27) and the dubiously quick whistle of Danny Crawford. The visitors shot 10 more free throws than the Celtics and had a 13-free throw advantage after three periods.

To borrow another phrase from a certain quotable Jets linebacker, the Magic's defense couldn't stop a nosebleed last night, as the Celtics put all five starters and Glen Davis in double figures.

Next up for Garnett and the Green is a date with Charlie Villanueva and the Detroit Pistons tomorrow. Should be interesting considering the history there, but the only c-word the Celtics are interested in is championship.

Oh, by the way, there will be at least one local sports team in action in a big game on Super Bowl Sunday. The Celtics have a rematch with the Magic at the Garden.

Since you no longer have a previous sports engagement that day, might as well join a championship chase in progress.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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