Years ago in Minnesota, the miss would have been accompanied by insults, by swarms of people imitating Reggie Miller’s choke sign. But Kevin Garnett is a champion now; the shouts demeaning his clutch play have dwindled to a whisper in the wind. So it was that Garnett was the only one making the choke sign, chasing after former teammate Billy Walker with a familiar rabid tick in his eyes.
The Celtics had just lost by two points after Garnett’s 15-footer clanged off the rim at the buzzer when Garnett decided to put his left hand on Walker’s neck. Who knows what was on Garnett’s mind. Perhaps he was perturbed at missing the final shot. Maybe he holds a deep-felt disgust for Walker formed during the player’s brief Celtics career. There’s a chance that Garnett feels his old self slowly dripping away like the sands of an hourglass, and his inability to outplay Amare Stoudemire or create offense using any move besides a simple jump shot left Garnett in a furious state. It’s possible that Walker said something to Garnett after Boston’s loss, something that pushed Garnett into the edgy mental state he visits more often than any other Celtic, maybe any other player in the NBA. Or maybe the incident was just Garnett being Garnett, resorting to quasi-violence because a competitive streak that runs deeper than an Antoine Walker three-pointer boiled over and Billy Walker owned the closest neck to shove.
Boston’s play could not have left Garnett in an enthusiastic mood. The Celtics — known for their especially stout defense the past four seasons — allowed New York to shoot 47.3 percent from the floor and drain nine out of 20 three-pointers. Boston began the race with a flat tire and ended it idling to the finish line. In between there were spurts of acceleration which the Knickerbockers could not handle, specifically a third quarter in which the Celtics outscored their counterparts 35-17, but the Celtics could not keep their collective foot on the pedal consistently throughout the whole game. Eighteen turnovers hurt Boston’s cause, and Doc Rivers’ team mustered only 17 points in the final period against a team hardly known for its defense.
There were positives, of course — Rajon Rondo showed a scoring mentality he rarely, if ever, demonstrated before, comparing Brandon Bass to Glen Davis would be one of the worst insults Bass has ever heard, Ray Allen scored efficiently like usual and the Celtics managed to outrebound New York 41-31 even though Jermaine O’Neal could have had as much impact on the game while getting a massage in the locker room — but for the most part, Boston’s performance was reminiscent of a team that was missing its star small forward and had managed only two weeks of practice after a six-and-a-half month layoff, an observation that should be unsurprising because that’s precisely the scenario Boston was faced with.
Garnett wasn’t awful against New York, not by any measurement. Fifteen points, eight rebounds and always-solid defense are no small accomplishments, especially when those points include a couple clutch (although ultimately futile) jump shots in the fourth quarter. But former MVPs hold themselves to a different standard. Tiger Woods is not pleased by a top-20 finish, Pedro Martinez is disgusted by a 3.95 ERA and Garnett mustn’t appreciate the feeling that he can’t do everything he used to. There were moments when Garnett demonstrated his bright basketball brilliance — a striking behind-the-back pass to Jermaine O’Neal especially comes to mind — but Garnett no longer is able to reach into his back pocket for a 325-yard drive or 100-MPH fastball whenever he needs it.
Doc Rivers has repeatedly said this preseason that Boston needs a more aggressive Garnett, and that’s a reasonable statement for a team that lacks shot creators beyond Rondo (and Pierce whenever he returns). But there are problems with Rivers’ request:
1) Garnett has never been the type to aggressively look for his offense.
2) Garnett, at 35 years old, will struggle to create his own offense with any regularity. Despite a semi-efficient 15-point night, Garnett didn’t have any moments that reminded of his prime, moments when he demanded the ball, posted up with both feet planted, shoulder-faked one way, pivoted the other and let fly a fadeaway that couldn’t have been more unblockable if it had been dropped from the rafters. Garnett is still good, but he is no longer great. He will have brief moments when he looks similar to the 2004 league MVP, but he will also have times when Jared Jeffries pulls the chair and Garnett tumbles to the ground like Johnny Lawrence had just swept his leg.
None of this is to say that Garnett is no longer very good (he is), or that I would want him playing anywhere else (I wouldn’t). There’s valor in the way Garnett is aging, adapting his game and charging on and competing with the same ferocity and selflessness that has always marked him at once as admirable and hated. Even if Danny Ainge could trade Garnett for a younger, equal player (he probably couldn’t), it would be hard to say goodbye. If a handful of wins is what we must sacrifice to root for our aging heroes, then surely we should want to sacrifice that, surely we should have the loyalty to root for men who brought us championships even when they can no longer (figuratively speaking) jump and lift quarters off the top of the shot clock.
Again, I’m not suggesting Garnett has become anything less than useful. He’s still one of the NBA’s better power forwards, still one of its smartest and most disruptive defenders, still a terrific midrange shooter and one of the league’s best-passing big men. The Celtics are far better off with him than without him.
All I’m noting is that yesterday’s loss to the Knicks — even if Garnett had drilled the final jumper — was the latest sign that Garnett has reached the mountain’s summit and is now descending, taking the mountain’s back side one small step at a time while the view gets progressively worse, until one day he will reach the bottom of that mountain, and the best memories of the climb will be the ones that remind Garnett what it felt like to stand on top and look down upon everything else.