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Call it an epiphany sparked by the Basketball Hall of Fame ceremonies this weekend. Call it indelicate, if you must. Just remember to call it the truth.
The Celtics would be better off right now if Jayson Tatum grew up idolizing Kevin Garnett rather than Kobe Bryant.
Please don’t take this as a knock on Bryant, one of the greatest 15 players of all-time. Nor is it a knock on Tatum for looking up to him to the point of emulation. He’s hardly alone there.
Long before his tragic death, Bryant was an avatar of basketball greatness to more than a single generation, much in the same way his idol, Michael Jordan, was to aspiring players in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Often, referring to an athlete as an icon is an act of obvious hyperbole. For a few, though, it’s the most fitting way to describe them. Larry was an icon. Magic, too. MJ, more than anyone. Such a heady designation belongs to Kobe, too.
I’ll dodge that risk of hyperbole and acknowledge that it does not belong to Garnett, a one-time champion, one-time NBA Most Valuable Player, and like contemporaries Bryant and Tim Duncan, a freshly minted Hall of Famer.
I think he’s something rarer than an icon, anyway.
Garnett is the most unselfish true superstar I’ve ever seen in the NBA. I’ll grant you a “save for Larry and Magic” there, and his deceptively laconic Springfield classmate Duncan has a case, but I think he stands alone. He was the heartbeat of the 2008 Celtics champions, the defensive fulcrum, his almost maniacal desire to win vastly superseding any interest in his own statistics — and we probably don’t need the “almost” there. His approach to the game, especially in 2008, is the closest my generation and younger will come to witnessing something approaching Bill Russell’s basketball ethos in our time.
During the New Big 3’s heyday, Kendrick Perkins, that meat grinder of a power forward, beefed more about getting touches than did Garnett. Paul Pierce didn’t have to sacrifice a thing about his game when Garnett and Ray Allen came here, because KG cared only about the W, not the PPG. He was an exceptional offensive player – did he ever miss an open 15-footer? – who was fine with ceding the glory and the basketball.
Tatum has that Kobe habit of trying to solve his team’s problems by looking to create his own shot more aggressively. It’s understandable; when Tatum gets rolling, like he did in his 60-point masterwork in the comeback win over the Spurs April 30, it seems like a lineup of Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and three MonStars wouldn’t even impede him.
But when it’s not working, it exacerbates the problem. The other Celtics follow his lead, and suddenly it becomes that My Turn basketball that runs counter to what Brad Stevens wants to do and is so damn unappealing to watch.
I cannot be the only one – I know I am not – who watched Garnett’s highlights during the Hall of Fame ceremony Saturday and thought, ‘’That is exactly what this year’s Celtics are missing – that intensity, that passion, the idea that losing a basketball game is a personal affront that must be avenged. Can’t Stevens add him to the coaching staff or something? Give him the Udonis Haslem role? Tell me something is possible there.”
Garnett’s Celtics endured their own aching disappointments. They were the best team in the league again in 2008-09, winning 27 of their first 29, including 19 in a row, before a Garnett knee injury derailed their repeat quest. They should have beaten the Lakers in the 2010 Finals, but Perkins hurt his knee in Game 6, Garnett got outplayed by Pau Gasol in Game 7, and what should have been Banner 18 is instead a permanent lament.
Danny Ainge is unsentimental. It’s been noted many times that he once told Red Auerbach he should have broken up the original Big 3. But I’m glad Ainge kept the new Big 3 together for six years. Even when their championship window was open only a crack, this salty group, bless ‘em, always fought, even when LeBron James permanently activated his superpowers in Game 6 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, and even two years later, when they somehow had a 3-2 lead over the superior Heat before LeBron and harsh reality caught up to them.
This year’s Celtics, who lug a 36-36 regular season record into Tuesday’s play-in game against the Wizards, have been a massive disappointment to the point that fans couldn’t be faulted if their anger has turned to apathy. Cries for major changes after the season will only grow louder if they falter in the play-in (and blow a chance to get creamed in the first round).
You won’t hear my voice among them. Oh, they’ve been exasperating to watch, and there’s blame to be divided among almost everyone of importance, but this was a difficult season for a lot reasons. Injuries are a reason for their inconsistency more than they are an excuse. The effects of COVID-19 have been way too easily dismissed. Their top seven players never once played in the same game. No matter how this ends, I want the core to return. If this repeats next year, then queue up the scapegoats. But not yet.
The season’s final scenes are coming soon, if not in the next couple of days, then almost certainly without much suspense in the first round. Minus Jaylen Brown, and with Robert Williams and others limping, they can’t prevent the inevitable. But they can control how it plays out.
Enough with the misguided hero ball. Enough being distracted by the officials. Enough with saying all the right things but failing to do them, again and again.
It’s so much more satisfying, such a larger experience, when team pride, rather than individual pride, becomes fulfilled.
Kevin Garnett, Hall of Famer and champion, epitomized that sentiment as well or better than any basketball player I’ve ever seen.
He may have left the Celtics eight years ago. But it’s not too late to learn from him.
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