It might have been the lowest moment of a season that was spinning rapidly out of control when young Andray Blatche walked into the Garden and dropped 31 and 10 on Kevin Garnett last April. It wasn’t so much that Blatche had a good night, it was that Garnett could do nothing to make it stop.
That was then and things are different now, but Garnett hasn’t forgotten.
“This team gave us problems last year and we haven’t forgotten that,” he said. “I haven’t. This team did give us problems last year and we made note of that.”
The Celtics made note, and relatively quick work, of Blatche and the Wizards, blowing them out 114-83 Wednesday night at the Garden in a game that wasn’t even that close.
But the story behind the final, as it has been most nights lately is that Garnett is back to being not just a good player, or even a very good one, but a great player. He shot 9-for-11 and held Blatche to a very quiet 10 points with most of that coming from the perimeter.
Garnett dunked, repeatedly. He shutdown the lane. He took Blatche inside and out and he ran the floor much better, and harder, than his younger counterpart. On one particular play, Garnett spun to the basket, and left with no other recourse, Blatche grabbed at Garnett’s shorts. That was the only defense he had left.
In the old days you could see a night like this coming. Once challenged, Garnett always responded. “I’m sure everything sits in that head of his,” Doc Rivers said before the game.
But that night last April gave some people pause. After a lifetime of challenging, and being challenged, had Garnett finally run out of answers? The answer, at least so far, is no, he hasn’t.
“To be honest with you, my mentality is to play each person in front of me the same,” Garnett said. “I’m not trying to be your buddy. I’m not trying to be your friend. I care less about what kind of name you’re trying to make off of me. That’s what it is. It’s competition. If you’re not out here trying to defeat me then I’m figuring, why are you out here? I understand that. I was young once. When I played Karl Malone and some of the other older guys I was just as geeked and just as excited to play against them.”
In a season of renewal and rebirth around the Celtics, Garnett’s ability to rise to the challenge each night is the best sign that they will no quietly into that good night. And now Andray Blatche knows, just like so many have come to know before, you may get Garnett once, but you better be ready for retribution.
Redemption was a good theme for the Celtics because the biggest redemption story, maybe the biggest in the league, was also unfolding Wednesday night:
DELONTE WEST COMES HOME
He hadn’t been able to sleep and he was up late again last night worrying about his clothes. “Tried to put a nice ensemble together,” Delonte West said.
He laid his pants and shirt out on the floor, imaging the thrill of going to the arena and being around his teammates for a real game. He thought about how he was going to be received by the crowd.
In many ways the game itself was going to be the easy part because West has complete faith in his abilities on the basketball court. But still, there was going to be so much emotion and as he prepared to check in for the first time this season, he caught himself.
“I was wondering how the crowd was going to respond,” West said. “They showed me a lot of love. I almost had a tear in my eye. Nick Young gave me like four buckets in a row and the tears dried up real fast. I had to remember I’m back in the NBA.”
Back in the NBA. Honestly, there were times when he wasn’t so sure it was going to happen. There were many anxious moments during the summer after the Cavs waived him when he sat in his house, under house arrest no less, and wondered if it was all over.
“For a minute there in the summertime, I thought I wasn’t going to see another NBA court,” West said. “I just thank the Lord that the ownership here and the coaching staff and Danny Ainge, they know what I’m about. They know the difference between a bad decision and a bad person.”
West made a terrible decision. No question about that, but he was granted a second chance by the people that know him best and he’s been determined to not let them down. On the court, there has never been any question that he can play and he showed that with 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes.
“Delonte looked really good,” Garnett said. “I’m just happy he’s out there. He’s going to be big for us.”
That he is because now the Celtics have a complete backcourt. West was the missing piece to that puzzle and now it’s coming together fully. It will take time, of course. Not every team is going to play “defense” like the Wizards played, but the next one will get easier, and the one after that.
“Glad I got it out the way,” West said. “Now you guys can go back to bothering them and leave me alone.” He was joking. After so much that’s happened, it was good to laugh.
THE SHAQ EFFECT
The Celtics made a calculated, and obvious, decision early in this game. The young Wizards frontline may be athletic and they may be able to jump out of the gym, but they didn’t have anyone who could stand a chance of muscling up against Shaquille O’Neal.
So they went to O’Neal early and often and by the end of the first quarter he had nine points on 4-for-4 shooting. He had 13 by halftime and that was that. Their advantage inside established, the Celtics proceeded to pick the hapless Wizards apart.
This is the second straight game O’Neal has dominated his space. He went for 18 against Memphis, also in 22 minutes of work.
“It’s two games in a row,” Rivers said. “It’s great for us. It gives us an inside presence. With Shaq and Kevin that’s a lot of size on the floor and we’re taking advantage of it. Our spacing was as good as it’s been all year.”
This is what Shaq offers the Celtics beyond the hilarity and the good humor. He is still bigger, and sometimes even surprisingly mobile, down in the post and other teams have to account for that.
“I don’t know if I’m surprised or not,” Rivers said prior to the game. “I’m happy. Since he’s been back he’s really done a nice job for us.”
The Celtics are still threadbare up front. They are still one more injury away from a potential disaster until Kendrick Perkins returns. There is no further update on Jermaine O’Neal whose return will be measured in weeks, not days.
Shaq is all they have at center, and right now that’s not a bad thing at all.
THIS IS POSSIBLY THE MOST AMAZING STAT YOU WILL HEAR ALL SEASON
None of the Celtics five starters played more than 30 minutes, which is great but only important here in terms of context. They all scored in double figures, which is also impressive, but not the most telling number from this game.
That would be this: The five Celtics starters took 49 shots, and made 34 of them. That’s 71 percent shooting and that’s practically impossible.
Paul Pierce was the big dog with 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting but even that felt comfortable. Just another big night for Pierce in the context of the team ball the Celtics are putting into practicing every night.
“I’m just trying to find ways to get easier baskets,” Pierce said. “I’m playing within the flow of the offense. There’s nothing really special going on.”
He meant individually and he was right. It was nothing special. Pierce was just doing what he does, playing slow and easy. The special thing that’s happening is the Celtics balance.
“It’s just sharing,” Rivers said. “We’re really unselfish right now and we’ve got to keep it that way. No one cares who has the ball, who scores the ball. They’re just good that way and we have to keep it that way. You know it when you see it, and we have to extend it as long as we can.”