Juxtaposed, the two teams only seem more different. Boston, a defensive-minded crew whose core has molded itself through years of experience. New York, almost singularly focused on offense, thrown together at mid-season in an attempt to save basketball in The Big Apple. Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are still feeling each other out, while Rajon Rondo could probably close his eyes and still pass the ball where Kevin Garnett will cut.
At their core, Garnett and Stoudemire share so many similarities. Two All-NBA power forwards. Two straight- outta-high school success stories. Two mutant physical specimens apparently designed specifically to play basketball. Two players crucial to their teams’ success, who have grown throughout the years to become leaders, who began their careers in one place and became beloved there, but saw greater opportunity elsewhere. Yet if they are atomically the same, they are molecularly dissimilar, like two very different blankets made from the same cloth.
Garnett has never seen himself as a force. Not in the typical way you expect a former MVP to view himself.
Not like Kobe Bryant, who needs the last shot like Bubs once needed his next fix. Not like a young Shaq, who considered himself the CEO, who wanted touches and needed things to go his way. Not like Derrick Rose, whose humble demeanor belies his late-game desire to shoot, to wound, to kill. Not like Paul Pierce, who can’t remember a time he ever wanted someone else to take the final shot. Not like Garnett’s own coaches want him to.
“I have no problem with shooting more,” Garnett told Jackie MacMullan. “The question I always find myself asking, is, ‘Will it be better for the team? Or am I shooting just to shoot?’”
“Basketball is so complex,” Garnett explained. “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.’”
Unselfishness, at once Garnett’s biggest strength and greatest weakness. We can imagine what he would have become with more of a killer instinct; with his unblockable fadeaway jumper, deadly midrange game and McHale-taught post footwork, could he have averaged 30 points per game? More? Could he have won a few additional MVP trophies? Labeled himself as his generation’s defining player? Has his unselfishness kept him from achieving all that he could have?
Or did it just change what made him great?
To understand Kevin Garnett is to understand you can’t judge a man’s character based on a single action. He has reduced Glen Davis to tears during a game; yet Doc Rivers calls Garnett the best teammate he has ever coached. He has crawled on all fours in a show of utmost disrespect for his opponents; yet to see him play and hear stories of his work ethic is to know he respects the game as much as anybody. He has turned off many opponents, players and coaches alike, who dislike his surly on-court demeanor and foul mouth; yet any of those players or coaches would salivate at the chance to coach or play alongside him. He will scream and pound his chest and curse for 48 straight minutes, then make a Family Guy reference in the postgame press conference. He has been known to shrink from the spotlight, but when the spotlight’s on him good things always seem to happen.
He’s an unselfish superstar, in an era where very few of those exist. He has been told over and over that he should play more aggressively, but that’s just not who he is, or, more importantly, not what he wants to be.
“I don’t play numbers,” he told MacMullan. “I hate it when coaches throw the numbers at me. You can be 100 percent, but it doesn’t tell me if you’ve got guts or not, if you have heart or not, or if you’re going to quit on me. I’m not into that.
“I guess I struggle with that because I’m a person who will give you my last. I’m a loyal individual and I wear my heart on my sleeve and what I like to say my greatest attribute is I can make the next person better. I believe that. I’m stating that. That’s a fact.
“When you’re a coach, and you’re outside of who I am, you see a force that could be something different. I’ve never seen myself that way.”
Not like Amare Stoudemire does. Where Garnett shoots a fadeaway jumper, Stoudemire targets the hoop like Ray Lewis hunts down running backs. Where Garnett’s mentality tells him to make an extra pass, Stoudemire’s tells him to break a rim in half. It’s not that Stoudemire’s selfish, because he’s not. He just exists permanently in attack mode.
In a summer when Chris Bosh and Lebron James moved across the country to join Dwyane Wade, Stoudemire relocated to New York, all by his lonesome. He was the first superstar to sign this summer, and he did not need another star to sign with him (at least not at the time). I don’t know why he chose not to collaborate with James and/or Wade, when he could have made the perfect pick-and-roll partner for either of them. Maybe he was sick of playing second-fiddle to Steve Nash. Maybe he got impatient and didn’t want to wait for them to make a decision. Whatever the reason, moving to New York showed an unshakable confidence. Not only did Stoudemire willingly sign where the media’s scrutiny would shine brightest, but he did so without a partner in crime. He did so knowing that if another superstar would join him, it would be because Stoudemire was enough of a draw. Carmelo ultimately did join him, but Stoudemire wasn’t afraid to initially tackle New York alone.
Now, he’ll have to tackle the Celtics. He’ll have to tackle Garnett, whose blood will simmer for the matchup, who is probably locked in a cage right now, growing hair and howling at the moon in anticipation of Sunday night. The two are atomically similar but molecularly different, and they’re after the same prize.