It was a throwaway line, buried deep by the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy on Sunday, 699 words into his 785-word column on a Game 7 that nobody in Boston had wanted.
Nearly 48 hours after the Celtics took care of the Hawks -- finally -- in an old-fashioned Garden rout, it is the one statement that still serves as warning for a team that suddenly has its jubilant fans in doubt for the first time all season.
"As for Garnett, I have only two words of warning: Alex Rodriguez."
The fact that the message can be so clear just by uttering a name reflects a sad state of affairs. The name rings of no rings. It speaks of failure in the clutch, the inability to get the job done when it matters most. No other name sparks various arrays of emotion, ranging from hatred to adoration. None other conveys the image of a choke artist, the game’s best player who has repeatedly had the opportunity for professional glory yanked from him by the inability to perform, the poster child for gagging in the limelight.
We base so much of our memories of an athlete’s greatness on whether he stepped up in time of need. Often, it’s an unfair assessment of their situations. It’s why we remember John Elway as one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played the game, while relegating Dan Marino to “A-Rod” status. Meanwhile, we tend to forget the surrounding cast, seem to push to the side peripheral truths to the title runs. If Elway doesn’t have Terrell Davis, odds are that he’s in the ringless wing with Marino.
CWTBO becomes an extra line on their state sheet. Can’t Win The Big One.
That has been the semi-tag on Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who has yet to win an NBA title despite being one of the game’s best players over the past decade-plus. Now, with a supporting cast that screams all for one, one for all, he has his best shot at one. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo form a supporting cast that could deliver Garnett to glory, and have the CWTBO tag removed forever.
But a seven-game series against the eighth-seed Hawks has Celtics fans a bit ... well, confused about what they have here. If they can’t stop Joe Johnson, how in the world will they stop LeBron James? If they can’t beat Atlanta on the road, how will they fare in Cleveland against a team that is much stronger than the one they struggled against in the first round?
For a playoff season that started with two convincing victories and yawns on the parts of Celtics fans, the tension and drama arrived a little earlier than expected. It was supposed to arrive with the start of Game 1 against the Cavaliers, the East’s entry in the NBA Finals of a year ago. The Chosen One vs. the New Big Three.
Instead, the Celtics plodded through a trio of road games and now their No. 1 star is being compared to the biggest choke artist in all of sports.
Writes ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski:
The A-Rod comparison gives you some idea about the hoops anxiety level in this town. On a scale of Nervous, Scared and Wicked Scared, the Celtics and their fans were somewhere between Option 1 and 2. They're better now, but that can change if a rested LeBron James and the Cavaliers win the first game of this next series.
Boston doesn't hold a grudge. I mean, they forgave Billy Buckner. And all it took was 22 years.
We’ll let the ridiculous Buckner assessment hang for a moment to agree with Wojciechowski’s overall point here. “Garnett isn't anywhere near A-Rod territory yet.”
In a backwards sort of way, this focus sort of puts the pressure on James and the Cavs in the back seat. Nobody is saying that James CWTBO yet, if only because he has been in the league a fraction of the time that Garnett has starred in it. And yet if Cleveland is ousted from the playoffs by Boston, nobody will say of James what they will say about Garnett in particular. The A-Rod comparisons will multiply on Causeway Street, and languish deep into the summer, when another former Minnesotan, CWTBO guy, Randy Moss, will begin his second season in New England.
Fair or unfair, a title is how we ultimately judge an athlete’s greatness, an often ironic judgment seeing as Doug Mirabelli has two more World Series rings than Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Rodriguez combined.
Back in March, the Pistons excused themselves from winning the No. 1 seed in the East based on the fact that they wouldn’t have to face No. 3 seed Cleveland until possibly the conference finals. And by that time, Boston and Cleveland might have beat up on each other enough that a trip to the finals would become a little easier. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, come into this series after kicking back over the weekend, with little to do but watch tape of the way the Hawks handled the Celtics.
It didn’t turn out that way. Little in sports does follow a set plan, despite an avalanche of predictions, odds, and keys to the games, all of which go awry at some point in a playoff series. Kevin Garnett is "supposed" to win an NBA title. So is LeBron, we assume.
But only one will be likened to the greatest CWTBO in all of sports, no matter the performances of the guys in green around him. It’s common practice to point out that Garnett, Pierce, and Allen have a total of zero rings among them. As the trio goes, so does Garnett. So do the Celtics’ chances of an elongated season.
Twelve more wins though, and Garnett can guarantee the comparison to become what it was prior to Game 7 on Sunday, a throwaway line, buried beneath all the questions and concern that preceeded it.