For 29 minutes or so, Kevin Garnett looked every bit the player he was before he strained his calf muscle two and a half weeks ago against Detroit. He was active on the glass, smooth with his jumper and had more than a few words for everyone in an Orlando uniform.
Then he took it to another level. The game had been a whirlwind of big plays and huge shots – a mid-winter’s night treat for anyone who likes basketball – but almost all the action had been on the offensive end of the floor, and Garnett has made his bones on the other side.
First, he stepped into Dwight Howard, denying him an easy dunk and sending him to the free-throw line where he made only one of two. He was in the right place to make the play because he had seen it before.
“Down there in the last two minutes they totally ran it,” Garnett said referencing the Christmas Day game. “We talked about it on the way home. We talked about it yesterday after practice and we talked about it before the game.”
Then with 38 seconds left, Garnett went into super-crazy madman defender mode. He chased Ryan Anderson over, under and through a set of screens and then jumped out to trap Jameer Nelson. That’s when Garnett’s frenzy met up with his considerable basketball brainpower and savvy.
“I knew I saw the passing lane was there,” Garnett said. “I saw the lane and took the ball.”
Garnett came up with the steal and flipped it ahead to Ray Allen who made two free throws and sealed the 109-106 win over the Magic (click here for a full recap).
There was so much brilliance on display in Garnett’s return, but by far the biggest thing to come out of Monday’s game was that he is in fact healthy.
Doc Rivers said he had no doubt about this and insisted before the game that there were no restrictions on Garnett in terms of minutes in his first game back. But there was still some concern last week after Garnett went through a practice and didn’t feel right.
“Before the Charlotte game, I didn’t really comfortable practicing,” Garnett said. “I could tell right away I wasn’t ready the way I wanted to be.”
So he asked Paul Pierce, the one player who will always give it to him straight what he thought. Pierce told him to wait and be sure, and he did.
Garnett has earned that right to make those kinds of decisions over the course of a career in which he has played 42,675 minutes and counting. Who can tell how many of those minutes he has played with the kind of intense fury he displayed in the final 100 seconds of Monday’s game. But it’s a fair bet that he’s played the vast majority of them as hard as he possibly could.
“These two weeks have been dark days for me,” he said. “I’ve been trying to keep my morale up, being hurt. I hate it. I don’t deal with it well.”
They are so much better when Garnett is playing, which is one of the things that drove him crazy while he waited for his leg to heal. Not only are they better defensively and on the glass, they are also a much more fluid offensive team. The Celtics shot 60 percent against one of the best defensive teams in the league and their 25 assists feels far too low considering the crisp ball movement.
Not all of that is Garnett, but it’s also not a coincidence that the Celtics played their best game in weeks when he was back. It was left to Pierce to sum up what Garnett means, and continues to mean to this team.
“We look like a totally different team out there with Kevin on the court,” Pierce said. “You can’t replace what Kevin gives to a ballclub. It doesn’t always show up in the numbers, but his presence and his feel for the game goes far beyond his numbers. We looked like a team that was ready and energized. We were locked in. That’s the culture that he’s brought here since he’s been here from day one, and everybody respects it.”
Here are three more takeways from Monday’s game:
THE CELTICS DIDN’T CHANGE THEIR PLAN AGAINST DWIGHT HOWARD
It is well known that few people on the planet defend Dwight Howard as well as Kendrick Perkins. Because of his size and strength, Perkins is one of the few players who can fight down low with Howard. That allows the Celtics to leave Perkins on an island, and in turn it also means that they won’t double and leave Orlando’s steady supply of shooters open for 3-pointers.
That didn’t change with Perkins out of the lineup. The Celtics don’t necessarily want Howard to score 33 points like he did Monday, but they can live with it. What they can’t live with is allowing him to score and foul him at the same time.
Howard went to the line 10 times in the second quarter and in the process ran up fouls on Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis. That was the one thing they couldn’t allow.
“I kept telling them, I’m good with that,” Doc Rivers said. “Just keep defending him. Every time he shoots it means no 3 from them. Just stop fouling.”
Without Perkins the Celtics turned to Shaq who gave them 12 points and 25 minutes. Shaq may not be the defender that Perkins is, but he does provide one key ingredient in playing Howard. Simply put, he’s Shaq. You have to account for him.
The Celtics wanted Shaq to get deep near the basket so when they ran their down screens to free Pierce and Allen it would force Howard to make a decision. Either follow the ball and go for the block or stay near Shaq and prevent the dunk. “We were either going to get Shaq deep or one of our shooters is going to get shots,” Rivers said.
One way or another the Celtics have a plan for Howard and that has been the one constant in this ever-changing matchup.
RAY ALLEN WANTS TO REACH SHOOTER’S NIRVANA
In the next few weeks, Ray Allen will pass Reggie Miller as the NBA’s all-time 3-point shooter. After Monday’s game he is now 28 makes away from passing Miller.
“Ray is adding on to his legacy,” Pierce said. “He’s already a Hall of Fame player. He’s already a champion. Everything he does from this point on is just icing on the cake. He’s just going to move up that ladder as far as one of the greatest players to ever play the game.”
The all-time 3-point record will make a fitting touchstone for Allen’s career, but he is more focused on the here and now and a different kind of achievement. What he has in mind is something he’s never done before. He wants to have a season in which he shoots 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line.
“The holy land of shooting is 50, 40 and 90,” Allen said. “That’s been something I’ve been aiming for my whole career.”
Allen is currently at 52, 48 and 88, but that’s nothing compared with the month he’s having. Allen is shooting over 62 percent from the floor in January and a rather insane 70 percent from 3-point range.
Against the Magic, he made the shot that Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said later was the biggest shot of the night. He ran cross court to the wing and got off a low-trajectory line drive that somehow touched nothing but net.
“That was an unbelievable shot,” Van Gundy said. “He made a dead run going away from the ball, and to knock it in; that’s an unbelievable shot and that’s why you’ll see him in the Hall of Fame.”
For Allen, it’s all about efficiency. He can’t control how many shots he gets or how many points he scores, but he can control what he does with his opportunities.
“Regardless if you shoot the ball 15 times or 10 times a game or five times a game, just being able to be efficient when you’re on the floor,” Allen said. “The more efficient you are, the team’s better. It translates into so many different things.”
DREAMING ABOUT SPRING AND THE PLAYOFF POSSIBILITIES
There is still so much that has to happen before we get to the true outcome of this Celtics season, but one thing is sure. Assuming everyone can get relatively healthy and through the first round of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference could have a dream semifinal, no matter who winds up matched up against one another.
Between the Celtics, Heat, Bulls and Magic there are four teams that could conceivably win the whole thing. That’s a change from past seasons in the East where there were three legit contenders and the regular season gameplan involved avoiding a second-round epic.
The matchups are enticing across the board. Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose perhaps, or the battle for Florida. One way or another, whoever, it seems that the Celtics and Magic will find a way to figure directly into the equation.
There are few matchups more complete and compelling than this one and that was on display once again Monday night at the Garden.