MIAMI — At what point in these playoffs did 20 points and 10 rebounds from Kevin Garnett stop becoming news? At what point during this Boston playoff run, which now spans 18 games (auspicious, right?), did Garnett’s dominance become an afterthought? With his team one win away from the NBA Finals, how did a 36-year-old center’s born-again brilliance become the norm?
Garnett was far from his best for half of Game 5 Tuesday night. He was 4 for 10 from the field in the first half and scored eight points in 18 minutes, a culprit in Boston’s 33-percent shooting. He wasn’t getting the ball where he wanted it. In 11 minutes, Heat center Chris Bosh — who hadn’t played in nine games — outproduced him with 9 points and 6 rebounds.
“We had a rough first half,” said Garnett. “Doc [Rivers] just kept saying to stay with it and continue to fight. I thought for the most part we did that.”
That Garnett has any fight left is something he is immensely proud of. Garnett likes to remind reporters, fans, whoever will listen, that they counted him out. He revels in his resurgence, at one point this season chastising reporters for questioning his ability to make 3-pointers, and at another questioning the wisdom of those who thought he’d be better off packing it in. The motivation may be partly manufactured, but there’s no question it fuels his game.
“For people who don’t think I can do what I do at 35, 36, I take a lot of pride in my craft,” Garnett told ESPN’s cameras. “I work on my craft every day. I’m a true professional.”
Looking past the bluster, a big chunk of Garnett’s rebirth has been organic. The questions were there because his game wasn’t. Garnett’s decline began after his best season in Boston, which also happened to be his first. After averaging 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds during the season the Celtics won their 17th world championship, Garnett’s numbers dipped to 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds the following year.
It was during that 2008-2009 season that Garnett suffered a right knee injury that caused him to miss the playoffs. The mysterious ailment — which the Celtics first announced as a right quad injury — and it’s recovery would linger into the next two seasons. Garnett averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2009-2010, which started the whispers of whether or not he was finished for good. Lakers center Pau Gasol’s 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals while being guarded by Garnett (Gasol outrebounded KG, 18-3) was taken as a sign that Garnett’s best years were behind him.
The Celtics power forward didn’t do enough to dispute that notion during the majority of the next two regular seasons, but a move to center late this season coincided with a major uptick in Garnett’s performance. After this year’s All-Star break, Garnett’s numbers went up across the board: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and free throw percentage were up. Turnovers were down. Garnett looked like a different player.
“You’re finally seeing a healthy Kevin,” said Paul Pierce. “He hasn’t been healthy the last couple of years. When you have a surgery of that magnitude, it’s tough on a big man, It looks like he has healthy legs. He’s playing long minutes. He’s giving everything he can.”
Garnett’s resurgence in the second half of Game 5 against Miami mirrored his resurgence in the second half of the season. He made 7 of 10 shots and had 7 rebounds. He led the Celtics in scoring on a night when Pierce and Rajon Rondo combined to shoot 9 of 34 from the floor.
“No one played well except for KG and [Mickael] Pietrus,” said Rondo.
Garnett has played well in almost every game of the playoffs. Consider Garnett’s point totals this postseason: 20, 15, 20, 13, 16, 28, 29, 15, 27, 9, 20, 20, 18, 23, 18, 24, 17, and 26. The one dud in 18 games was in a loss to the Sixers in Game 2. Even with that, he’s averaged 19.8 points and 10.8 rebounds in the playoffs. The only time his numbers have been better were during the 2008 playoffs, when he averaged 20.4 points and 10.5 rebounds.
“It’s up there probably since the first year when he came, and he was averaging 20 and 10 every night in the playoffs” said Pierce. “He’s dominating. We’re taking advantage of him.”
Consider what a dominant Garnett now means for Boston. The Celtics were thought to be as cooked as their 36-year-old center, but they’ve bumped and jostled their way to the cusp of the NBA Finals. It’s all happened so fast. With three wins in a row, it’s possible even Garnett doesn’t realize the magnitude of what he’s doing.
“We have been taking this thing one game at a time,” said Garnett. “The next game will be no different from that. We’ll prepare. We’ll make all of the adjustments. We’ll watch film. We aren’t looking ahead to anything.”
No one could have looked into a crystal ball and predicted this. Garnett acts like we should have all seen this coming, but even those who have watched every Celtics game since that charged press conference when the New Big Three were introduced couldn’t have expected this. The conventional wisdom is to enjoy this for as long as we can, to take solace in how far this team has come, no matter if they fall short.
Garnett would scoff at that. He wants to win games, and he sees no reason why he can’t be the best player on the court while doing it. Maybe it’s time for us to start listening.