The maneuver was, in a way, counter-intuitive. The third-quarter clock ticked down and Doc Rivers knew his team was scratching for its life, so he yanked the one player who statistically has been most important to Boston’s playoff success.
Rivers had his reasons for giving Kevin Garnett a breather before the fourth quarter arrived. He had rested Garnett for two minutes in the final frame of Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks and the Hawks had, like THAT, shaved eight points off what had been a nine-point deficit. Rivers wasn’t willing to risk losing Game 1 and home court advantage by sitting Garnett in the waning minutes again.
“It’s so hard when he’s off the floor for those 12 minutes or 10 minutes. I mean, you’re in a panic right now,” Rivers said of Garnett, whose presence on the court had made the Celtics 49.92 points per 100 possessions better so far in this postseason entering yesterday’s game. Yesterday, Garnett again dominated for the Celtics on a night when they needed him to.
Paul Pierce hit just 3 of 11 field goals, the Celtics made only 2 of 18 three-pointers, Rajon Rondo operated in a fog for much of two or three quarters (though he was alternately brilliant to secure yet another triple-double), and the Philadelphia 76ers provided a stiff test in the ways they were expected to — their transition offense beat the Celtics down the court several times, especially in the first half, and their defense limited Boston’s open looks.
Were it not for Garnett pouring in 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting, Philadelphia would have built a far bigger lead in the first half, when the Celtics struggled to find other offensive contributions (outside of Garnett, Boston shot 10 for 31 in the first two quarters).
Were it not for Garnett, where would these Celtics be?
“When he’s on the floor, he’s doing everything for us,” Rivers explained. “He had a great block late in the game, he’s making big shots, he’s posting, he’s getting to the foul line, he’s just playing fantastic.”
Said Doug Collins, “I’ve never seen him play better.”
Garnett is a former MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year, a 14-time All-Star. He did not make the All Star team this season for the first time since 1999. His absence from the game was supposed to signal a changing of the guard, a sign that finally his time as a superstar was beginning to pass. Instead, he followed with his most consistent stretch of play since he finished third in the 2008 MVP voting while leading the Celtics to a championship.
“We are gonna ride Kevin all the way until his wheels fall off, and he’s bringing it every night. He understands the sense of urgency with this ball club and he’s giving it everything he got out there for us,” said Paul Pierce. “And he’s looking like ’04 MVP, definitely.”
Garnett’s 29 points last night represented his season high, one more than the 28 he scored in the Game 6 clincher against the Hawks, three more than the 25 he scored in February against the Milwaukee Bucks for his highest output of the regular season. He added 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and one steal. His fourth quarter contributions included nine points on 4 of 5 shooting, four rebounds, a steal and a block.
“I don’t know what else we could have done,” Collins said, adding, “I don’t think there was anything we did poorly with him. I just think that sometimes you get trumped.”
Garnett can’t maintain this pace, one would think. He’s 35 years old, and he can’t possibly keep bettering his previous “best performance of the season” on a nightly basis. The lockout schedule was supposed to wear him down. The Celtics just played six grueling games with the Hawks and only had one day of rest before opening against the Sixers. Old age is supposed to lead to inconsistency, to nights when a man’s body simply won’t work.
Yet Garnett is doing everything he can to stiff arm father time and shut the front door on the effects of aging. In a city where Josh Beckett would rather play golf than try to recover from whatever ailment is bothering him these days, No. 5′s attitude is more than refreshing.
“I have no life at this point,” he said. “I go home, get treatment, come back in here, study tape, film. No life at all. This is what it is.”
Looking around the Eastern Conference landscape, one realizes that this pattern of Garnett dominance, this beautiful array of near-perfect defensive decisions and surprisingly explosive offense, might actually continue. Spencer Hawes barely plays the same game as KG. Chris Bosh has loads of talent, but Garnett made him disappear during two late-season meetings. The Indiana Pacers have David West and Roy Hibbert to throw at Garnett in tandem, but if they get past Miami I’ll spend the next two weeks locked in my room listening to tapes of Avery Johnson screeching at the top of his lungs.
One big man clearly stands peerless in the remnants of the Eastern Conference playoff race. He didn’t make the All-Star team this season and he might never again. His team was left for dead at the break, with a 15-17 record, and he likewise stumbled into the season’s back nine. But a transformation occurred, a revival of sorts the reasons for which aren’t entirely known — which leads us to now, when Doc Rivers cannot afford to take Kevin Garnett off the floor even for a minute of the fourth quarter.
“Whatever is asked of me is what I am going to do,” Garnett said.
But that can’t be true. What he is doing on a consistent basis, at this stage of his career, no person could have reasonably asked for.