In competition Kevin Garnett’s eyes smolder like lava, relics of a time when basketball players still loathed their opponents. He plays basketball like he has Tourette’s syndrome, a fire was lit in his underpants, and he would gladly take 4-5 years in prison if it meant beating the team sitting on the opposite bench. He sometimes loses control of his emotions, if he ever had control of them in the first place. He crawls like a dog, releases the breath of dragons, and occasionally finds himself in the news for disparaging on-court comments, a flying elbow, or a well-placed tap to Channing Frye’s “groin.”
Somewhere underneath the fireworks that make Garnett’s persona rests a relentlessly polished game. Possessing the physique of a sharpened pencil, Garnett’s angular, long body allows him to do many things, but he was never equipped for hand-to-hand battle in the paint. He helped revolutionize the power forward position, helped bring basketball to an era where seven-footers could do more than make sky hooks, but Garnett never wanted games to evolve into a shoving match. Instead he took advantage of his unique talents by developing a finesse game, one that allowed him to play both inside and outside like a rubber basketball. He understood his few physical limitations, and thus painted brush strokes where others sculpted stone.
Over time, Garnett developed his own set of post moves, a set almost impossible to duplicate, if only because there are very few seven-footers with arms that resemble a giraffe’s neck and the ability to loft midrange jump shots softer than a broken-in pillow. Because an abundance of physical contact would work against his strengths, Garnett worked on moves that would limit contact or avoid it altogether. A bruiser like Shaq could lower his shoulder into a defender to create space, but Garnett needed to create space a different way, utilizing near-perfect footwork, a high release on his jump shot, and athleticism that set him apart from almost any other seven-footer ever to walk this planet.
Garnett developed a bevy of moves and counter-moves, but one stood out as his most unblockable, one became the move he relied on when his team needed a bucket most. Probably because of an aging body that doesn’t function like it used to, Garnett doesn’t make his signature move nearly so often anymore. But when he does, and when he did, it is prettier than Jessical Biel in Summer Catch.
He catches the ball in the post and begins his move. He can start left or he can start right, and there’s always the threat he’ll go straight to the hoop, or straight into a jump hook, rather than use his signature fadeaway jumper. For most of the world’s greatest players, versatility is the greatest ally. Because Garnett poses problems with his other moves, because he can score outside as easily as he can score inside, because he can turn either to his left or right shoulder, his signature turnaround becomes even more unguardable.
If Garnett begins the move left, he will turn back to his right, using his back to shield himself from the basket and his man. At that point, many players would continue to spin, pirouetting straight to the hoop for a layup. Not Garnett, at least not usually. Rather, Garnett stops the spin with his back to the basket, timing his last dribble to be picked up at the same time he plants both feet, always at the same time he plants both feet. The stationary feet allow Garnett to maintain the threat of pivoting either direction; this is a tactic any good big man coach will teach but few post players are controlled enough to actually utilize.
Next comes a shoulder fake in one direction. If Garnett’s defender bites, even a little bit, the battle’s all but over. He fades away to his other shoulder and takes a jump shot, and because of that high release, because of his body that looks like it was stretched by a dough roller, because he’s the rare seven-footer who can levitate off the ground, a defender’s chance of blocking the shot are about the same as the chance of being struck by lightning while inside an arena. When you combine Garnett’s Fluffernutter-soft touch with his favorite shot’s unblockability (forgive me for making up a word), you get the signature move of one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history.
The shot, and Garnett’s entire game, was so unguardable that many pundits wondered why Garnett wasn’t more selfish. Earlier in his career, Garnett’s unwillingness to carry a greater scoring load became looked upon as his greatest flaw. If he could score with such ease, why didn’t he do so more often? If his teammates stunk (and they did), why didn’t he phase them out? If he couldn’t get past the first round, why did everyone consider him so damn great? People concluded Garnett was soft, lacked clutchness, didn’t have the killer instinct lighting his insides afire like all the great ones do. Even today, even after that flawed line of thinking has been remedied, even in his slightly diminished form, Garnett could use a little more selfishness, especially during certain matchups.
That being said, we’ve come to accept Number Five for what he is, a defensive quarterback in the Ray Lewis mold, who not only sniffs out opponent’s plays but does so with the attitude of a man willing to eat a sheet of metal in exchange for a win. He never did become the offensive killer many people hoped, even though he had the tools, but that was more because of a team-first philosophy ingrained deep within his soul. How could Garnett lead an unselfish team if he falls victim to selfishness himself?
“Basketball is so complex,” Garnett once said. “I feel like if there has been no ball movement, which is very needed in the game, I’ll sacrifice that elbow jumper that I know I can make nine out of 10 times to make the ball move. So when I tell you to move it, you can’t say to me, ‘Well, you’re not moving it.’
“I told [Celtics coach Doc Rivers], ‘I’m going to pass these next two shots up. I’m going to move this ball just so when we come back to the huddle I can say, “We need ball movement,” and the guys won’t look at me like I’m crazy.’”
“[Doc Rivers has] been on my ass about [shooting more], Flip [Saunders] was always on my ass about it,” he continued. “I have no problem with shooting more. The question I always find myself asking, is, ‘Will it be better for the team? Or am I shooting just to shoot?’”
While Garnett does not claim to see the value in shooting more, coaches always did. So did fans. So did analysts. Maybe we just didn’t see the game through the same prism Garnett does; maybe we basketball mortals can’t possibly understand the amount his unselfishness has aided his teammates. But with a shot that defenders could not block, a shot that combines the exact footwork of a ballerina, a release point that seems halfway to heaven and the softness of baby powder, Garnett could have scored more. He could have lifted his team on his angular shoulders more consistently.
We can hold that against him, but don’t let that cloud everything else he accomplished and will still accomplish. Those eyes only smolder like lava because Kevin Garnett regards wins the same way a junkie regards his next fix. No matter how many shots Garnett has passed up, his motives remain pure.
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