No matter that Kevin Garnett had taken the Target Center court three times already as a Celtic. No matter that he’d been gone for five years, that he should have been more a memory than a source of such crippling insecurity. He was still Kevin Garnett, after all, but these were different desires, different hopes for the man who was once the Timberwolves’ greatest hope.
This time would be different. This time, there were fewer fans with those seven letters on the backs of their outdated jerseys. This time, they’d replaced Garnett with a new Kevin, a Kevin who was set to prove, head-to-head, that he was better. This time, Garnett was finally old.
And then Garnett waltzed into Minneapolis, still feeding off the derogatory comments he’d made earlier that week about the Timberwolves franchise, propelled by the smattering of boos among the cheers and the implications at every turn that he and his Celtics had passed their prime. With all that coursing through his ancient, calcifying, 35-year-old veins, Garnett posted his best performance in Minnesota since leaving, 24 points and 10 rebounds a wagging finger at any and all who had written him off.
As it was for so many years, it was again KG’s house. For a night, youth was nothing more than immaturity, and age was deadly. But whatever Garnett proved that night in Minnesota went beyond just one game. It was one of the first hints of something revitalized, a Celtics team that was more than just passably good.
When the Celtics arrived in Minnesota that Friday night in March, they were 28-22, tied for first in the Atlantic Division with the 76ers and for sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Timberwolves, still reeling from and not yet doomed by Ricky Rubio’s ACL tear, had just three fewer wins. It could have been a game.
But then Garnett and company arrived. Then a 35-year-old guarded his 12-years-younger supposed successor better than anyone had all season, holding Love to 22 points in the final game of a month when he averaged 30.7. The Celtics won by 21, 100-79, and in hindsight now we can say of course they did. But back then, with their window supposedly closing and their team supposedly faltering, the Celtics looked like all they’d built might have been eroding.
From March 30 on, the Celtics went 11-5 to end the regular season, pushing them into the top spot in their division and fifth place in the conference. After averaging 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds in his first 47 games, Garnett averaged 18.2 points and 9.6 rebounds to end the year. He had 2008 stuff, at least for a while.
Now, even as Boston’s season ends with their 101-88 loss to the Heat, it’s hard not to call what it accomplished a success. Garnett might not see it that way, not with his intensity, but if this were an individual competition, he might just have won. Look at the raw emotion on Doc Rivers’ face when he took his center out of the game in its final seconds. This guy means something. His career means something. Forget that Garnett scored just 12 and then 14 points in the Celtics’ final two losses. It pales in comparison to the statement he made in the season’s final month.
KG was not finished. Not yet.
That game against Minnesota looks a lot like the perfect turning point for Garnett. In one game, he trumped his past and affirmed his present. It was the third straight night he’d scored 20 or more points – the first time he’d had three such games in succession all season – and he had 20+ point nights in five of his final 12 games. In the playoffs, he’s averaged even better, 19.2 points and 10.3 rebounds, and as the Celtics advanced through three rounds, they seemed far from hobbled old men.
But somehow, they can’t shake that rap. No matter how many points they score, how much Rajon Rondo might distract everyone, how freakishly the years and strain can disappear from Garnett’s limbs and joints, they’re still old. More than one news outlet ran picture this week of the Celtics that were tinted green. It’s the team’s color, of course, but it gave them a sickly sheen, an almost alien-like hue. Now that they’re eliminated, it’s the tinge of disease and old age, but if the Celtics had won, it would have been something superhuman. It’s all so much clearer than it should be, the nuances eliminated by the black and white of winning and losing.
Garnett must hate it. He doesn’t want a new identity. He already has one, a fierce, emotionless, stoic façade he’s built over the course of his career. He’s fueled by the anger of proving himself as better, better, better. He insults his former team for no apparent reason. He’s intensely private, aloof. This is the public persona of Kevin Garnett, and he thrives on it. If anything, Garnett is the villain. He’s still clinging to a fierceness that doesn’t fit within the parameters of decline, but LeBron James and the Heat have stolen the role that’s always been his.
They’re the villains. They have something to prove. The spotlight is theirs to manipulate at will. They’re the doers; the Celtics just react, claiming whatever fringe territory they can from the team America loves to hate. And so Garnett gets to be old. He gets to be a cloying has-been. He can be everything the Heat cannot by virtue of their relative youth and (disappearing) novelty.
Against the Heat, it’s LeBron, LeBron, LeBron. It’s hard to care about Garnett when James and his minions are on the court. The Heat lose – it’s James’s fault. They win – he’s amazing, but he still isn’t clutch, not yet. James is nitpicked to the extreme, and all Garnett must do are seconds-long postgame interviews about how he takes his craft seriously. We’re supposed to see him as the underdog now, the sideshow, and Saturday’s loss cemented that.
But Garnett hasn’t quite earned that role yet, and after a late-season performance that should have quashed all accusations of being past his prime, Garnett’s final two games were a reminder that maybe this was a fluke. Maybe Garnett’s resurgence couldn’t last. That’s not the craziest idea, but it doesn’t override what happened for the last two and a half months. It doesn’t take away from the fact that the Celtics matched the Heat until those final few minutes, that for a little while on Saturday, people dared to believe that Boston was heading to the Finals, in large part because of Garnett’s late-season push. And there’s no chance he’d have smiled as wide as LeBron did after game seven if his team had won, not when there’s another series to go.