The image was jarring, to those of you who have paid any attention this season. Lebron James drove to the basket for a late layup that pulled the Eastern Conference within whispering distance of their Western Conference opponents, and Kevin Garnett jumped off the bench. No, Garnett wasn’t planning to attack Lebron, or to ball tap him, elbow him, or knock him out like his name was Rick Rickert. Garnett’s team was in the midst of a comeback, and he just wanted to cheer.
In a way, everything I knew about Garnett was being challenged. I felt he would shun Lebron James. I thought he would refuse to shake Lebron’s hand, leave a flaming bag of dog poop in Lebron’s locker before the game, or spit cyanide at Lebron during layup lines. That’s just who Garnett is, or at least who I thought he is. If you aren’t part of his team, he doesn’t like you. He despises the sight of you. He wants to bury you alive, and then piss on your grave. But still, he cheered Lebron James.
It confused me, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I shouldn’t be confused. Garnett hates his opponents, which explains his antics — the cussing, the elbows, and the never-ending stream of venom which courses from Garnett’s mouth. If you aren’t Garnett’s teammate, he doesn’t have time to pay you any mind. He has a one-track mind dedicated solely to winning, and anything else he does is aimed at boosting the likelihood of his next victory.
“But that’s him,” Nowitzki told the Boston Herald. “I’ve competed against him for 13 years now, and that’s how he is. I don’t care what game it is, I don’t care if they’re up 20 or down 20, he’s intense and that’s what makes him great. He brings that intensity to the game that’s probably annoying to others, but that’s his style.”
Which is why I felt Garnett would squat on all fours to clap in Dwyane Wade’s face… while Wade was his teammate on the same bench. As usual, I was wrong. Garnett, even though he only played a few minutes, was in competition. Lebron, Wade, and everyone else on the East, if only for one night, were KG’s teammates. With the East charging in the fourth quarter, Garnett didn’t care about personal history with those players — he just wanted to win. Which is different from having a genuine affection for the non-Celtics All-Stars.
Rich Levine spent All-Star weekend like a small, annoying dog, attached to the Celtics’ hip. He took a unique story angle, observing every interaction the Celtics had with other All-Stars. He wanted to know how friendly the Celtics would act. He wanted to know whether the suspected dislike Boston holds for the Eastern Conference is real, or just media-generated. He wanted to know whether the Celtics would let their guard down.
According to Levine, they did. He saw Garnett — gasp — joking with Dwight Howard. He saw Pierce — whoa — hanging out with Lebron. But Levine came away from the weekend with one major conclusion: there are the Celtics, and there are the other Eastern Conference All-Stars. And the two groups have some major differences.
The Celtics were cordial, Levine said. They joked, and they laughed, and they were friendly. As Levine noted, not friends, but friendly. The Celtics didn’t quite embrace their teammates like everyone else did.
“Basically, what I saw were four players who existed on the outside of the team’s inner circle,” wrote Levine for CSNNE. ”Guys who were very different than the rest of the conference’s best. They weren’t a part of the NBA’s ‘cool click,’ but at the same time, they couldn’t care less. They weren’t rude, but they also weren’t going out of their way to foster any special relationships. They weren’t looking for new friends to party with on the road. Or potential teammates to poach at the next free-agency period. They were there to play basketball, have fun and enjoy a little time off from the grind. And that’s about it.”
Levine attributed the disconnect between Boston and everyone else to one thing: age. The Celtics, as Levine points out, are old. 34-year olds don’t normally hang out with 24-year olds, because they don’t share much in common. A valid point, indeed. But I wonder if there’s something deeper than merely age, even if it’s a byproduct of age. The Celtics, I suspect, have more wisdom than their fellow Eastern Conference All-Stars. They understand that making friends with their enemies can be counter-productive.
Look at the Eastern Conference roster, and you’ll find a number of players who haven’t quite gotten the proverbial “it.” Dwight Howard, Lebron James, and Amare Stoudemire — all players whose playoff history is marked by failure. (Side note: The playoff failures extend beyond that trio, of course, but I have a tough time blaming Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Derrick Rose, or Chris Bosh for their postseason shortcomings; those players have never played for a true contender. That’s partially their own fault, of course. As stars, they lead the way. But if you play for what I, with a tip of the hat to Drake, like to call a “Chuck Taylor Team,” there’s not much you can do. You’ve got no support.)
Only one Eastern Conference All-Star, outside the four Celtics, has ever won an NBA title: Dwyane Wade, in 2006. Barring Wade, the non-Boston Eastern Conference All-Stars have collectively won squaw-doosh. Even Wade, since his ’06 title, hasn’t won a single playoff series. The Chuck Taylor effect was undoubtedly in play while Wade failed to advance past the first round, so I’m not holding it against him. Still, the Eastern Conference All-Stars, as a bunch, are not known for winning. Yet they smile. A lot. And make friends. Dwight Howard laughs as much as (more than?) any NBA-playing human being, ever. Lebron, Wade and Bosh famously united to play with their amigos.
Only the four Celtics, on that Eastern Conference All-Star team (and Derrick Rose, who reportedly refused to woo free agents this past summer), are known for their collective disdain of opponents. Maybe that’s as simple as “they’re old.” Or maybe that age, and the knowledge gained from so many years in the NBA, has taught the Celtics something the others don’t know — the strength in being competitors who rarely, if ever, make friends, competitors who hold a healthy disgust (or, as is often the case for Garnett, an unhealthy disgust) for all who they play.
Kevin Garnett cheered Lebron James’ late bucket because it helped his team draw closer to a win. For him, and the Boston Celtics, it’s always about winning, a permanent goal which I assume led the Celtics’ “friendly but not friends” movement.