A year ago, with the paranoia around the impact Kevin Garnett’s injury lingering as the Celtics started the postseason, Celtics coach Doc Rivers reached his wits’ end fairly quickly. The question of whether Garnett would play (no) led to whether Garnett would at least be on the bench (maybe) which led to what impact his teammates would take from having their leader there to support (probably not much). Eventually, Rivers stopped answering questions about Garnett altogether, saying he wasn’t worried about players in suits and ties.
“Everybody was making a big deal about Kevin being on the bench,” Rivers said. “Nobody listens to a guy – a player – that’s not dressed. They just don’t. I don’t care how good they are, because you’re not out there with them. They may have listened, but it just didn’t have the same impact.”
In his return to the postseason this year, Garnett has tapped into the level he played at before a knee injury stunted his season and the Celtics’ hopes of back-to-back titles. He has averaged 19.1 points and 7.9 rebounds in the playoffs thus far. But throw the numbers out. All the intangibles — psychological and emotional — that the Celtics lacked in Garnett’s absence are now infused into this playoff run.
He’s persistently supported Rajon Rondo as the young point guard has blossomed throughout the postseason. When people wondered how anyone was able to resurrect Rasheed Wallace circa 2005 for Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Garnett joked, “I slapped his ass.” His influence is obvious, especially after the Celtics blew out the Cavs in Cleveland Tuesday night. Before he left the court, Garnett made the steely declaration – on national television no less – that the Celtics cannot come back to Cleveland.
“Obviously,” Rivers said, “his impact is better now that he’s in a uniform.”
The position the Celtics find themselves in, up three-games-to-two on the Cleveland Cavaliers, is similar to the spot they were in a year ago when they held the same edge through five games of their second round series with the Orlando Magic. The specifics – home court advantage and LeBron James (No. 1a on the list of the planet’s best players) — are a little different. Garnett’s presence, however, makes the Celtics a different team from the one that lost to Orlando in both Games 6 and 7 as well.
“Last year, we didn’t have KG so I know the spirit’s going to be there,” said Kendrick Perkins said. “Just having him for the focus in the locker room. Once he gets to the game, it’s quiet. There’s a great focus. Everybody’s going to get focused because he’s focused.
“One thing about KG, he just leads by example. So guys have kind of got to follow, whether it’s Paul following, Rasheed following. He leads by example. KG brings that intensity to the game. His energy level is high. Forget his skills, he’s just a man of great focus and he demands for his teammates to go hard.”
A year ago, Garnett’s demands only went so far. As much as he was seen barking from the Celtics bench, taunting opponents, he was also doing as much teaching as possible, particularly to his understudy Glen Davis. But watching the games frustrated him to the point that after watching the first half of the Celtics playoff-opening overtime loss to the Bulls he retreated to the locker room for the second half.
Davis could have hit as many shots as he wanted, but the void Garnett left was practically impossible to fill. This year, Garnett’s voice booms on defense. The Celtics have fed him to the point of gluttony in the post, trying to take advantage of his matchup with Antawn Jamison. But above all else, his focus forces his teammates to sharpen theirs.
“When he wasn’t there, that leadership, we had it from Paul and Ray and Rondo, but it’s a whole different experience when you’ve got ‘5’ in there,” Davis said. “He makes sure everything runs right. If something’s lacking he says something. He can carry a team with his actions. So, having him there this year is going to help us a lot.
“I was in his place, but at the same time, Kevin’s a verbal leader. His actions, his intensity, his post-up presence, it’s a lot of things that we didn’t have last year. I was scoring the points but at the same time, he’s a different person than me. He’s a whole different breed.”