Of all the veteran players in the Boston Celtics locker room, there’s not one who zeroes in on the task at hand during the NBA playoffs more than Kevin Garnett. A 17-year veteran now in his 12th postseason, Garnett eats, sleeps and breathes basketball at this time of year.
Anyone who’s spent more than a few seconds around KG knows he’s as intense as anyone in the league to begin with, and when the pressure is turned up and the spotlight is on him, he speaks and plays with the kind of deliberate, undivided focus that makes it clear how much he means it when he says a second NBA title is the only thing on his mind.
“I have no life at this point,” Garnett said Saturday after the Celtics’ 92-91 Game 1 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series. “I go home, get treatment, come back in here, study tape, film. No life at all. This is what it is.”
And so far it’s paying off for a Boston team that will need every ounce of that concentration — as well as the collective contributions of Garnett’s veteran teammates Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo — if it wants to make a third appearance in the NBA Finals in the five seasons since the Big Three came to be.
Garnett scored a season-high 29 points to go with 11 rebounds Saturday night, helping the Celtics rally from 13 down in the third quarter. KG answered the bell in the fourth quarter, scoring nine points, including five straight down the stretch to give the Celtics a four-point edge with 2:17 left.
“When we need a bucket, we tend to go to Paul and Kevin,” said Rondo who — oh, by the way — had his eighth career playoff triple-double, with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 17 assists. “And Kevin had a (good) matchup tonight. He had a lot of great looks that he wanted, and he made his shots.”
For the postseason, Garnett — who scored 15.8 points to go with 8.6 rebounds per game in the regular season — is now averaging 20.1 points and 10.6 rebounds, his best playoff numbers since the Celtics’ last championship in 2008.
“We’re going to ride Kevin all the way until his wheels fall off, and he’s bringing it every night,” said Pierce, who had 14 points, six rebounds and six assists. “He understands the sense of urgency with this ball club, and he’s giving it everything he’s got out there for us, and he’s looking like the ’04 MVP, definitely.”
Garnett’s numbers may not quite match the 24.2 points and 13.9 rebounds he put up during his 2004 MVP campaign with Minnesota — or the 24.3 points and 14.6 rebounds he put up during the Timberwolves’ Western Conference finals run that year — but it’s hard to argue that his impact hasn’t been just as significant.
“He’s great; he really is,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He’s making it — it’s so hard when he’s off the floor for those 12 minutes or 10 minutes, I mean you’re in a panic. … But when he’s on the floor, he’s doing everything for us. 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.”
In addition to Garnett’s second straight breakout game — he scored 28 points and had 14 rebounds in Boston’s Game 6 elimination of the Atlanta Hawks — the Celtics got the usual contributions out of Pierce, Ray Allen (12 points) and Rondo, whose jumper gave the Celtics a five-point lead with 56 seconds left.
And it was Rondo’s heady play and lightning-quick speed that allowed Boston to run out the final 3.4 seconds of the clock as Philadelphia desperately tried to commit a foul.
“I didn’t think I would play the way I played tonight,” Rondo said. “I was struggling with my shot early, and I was turning the ball over, so I was trying to do the intangibles and do everything I could to help my team. And I came up with some rebounds, I came up with some assists and it just happened to be a triple-double.”
On the other side of the court, the lack of a veteran, KG-like leader or a dynamic, Rondo-like creator — or really, the absence of anything that even resembles a go-to guy at all — has been something that has plagued the Sixers all season long, and it came into play again in Game 1.
“Experience showed a little bit, especially with the plays they made,” said Andre Iguodala, who led the Sixers with 19 points in the loss. “They knew exactly what they were going to get into and execute it.”
For the regular season, Philadelphia went 7-19 in single-digit games, including a 1-4 mark in games decided by three points or fewer. In the first round against Chicago, the Sixers went 3-1 in single-digit games, but by Saturday, they seemed to be back to their old ways.
“We had a great chance to get this game today, and we just had four really bad offensive possessions that really hurt us,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “And that’s sort of the sign of a team that’s trying to grow and sort of figure out what it is to play this kind of championship basketball in the NBA playoffs.”
In the late stages of Saturday’s game, Philadelphia struggled to run its offense, often times needing the full 24-second clock to get a decent look, when they got one at all.
“We’ve sort of done it by committee,” Collins said of his team’s strategy in late-game situations, “It’s move the ball, and whoever gets the open shots (takes them). That’s who we are right now as we’re trying to grow.”
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, “who we are” won’t cut it against a seasoned Celtics team led by an overwhelmingly focused veteran who’s out for blood, and this isn’t the time to learn on the fly.
Garnett, these days, is seemingly motivated by everything — from the cries that he’s too old and slow, to the constant chatter that the Celtics are a team in the twilight of their era of success to the accusations of an opposing owner that he’s a “dirty” player — and he’s arguably playing his best basketball in years. As a result, the Celtics are rolling.
“When I win, I’m having a lot of fun,” Garnett said succinctly Saturday, as though he already had Monday’s Game 2 on the brain. “When we lose, it’s a tough day.”
And if he can maintain his focus and keep playing like he has so far this postseason, it’s tough to imagine there will be too many tough days ahead.