MIAMI -- About nine hours before Game 5, Kevin Garnett sat in a chair along the baseline with his head buried in his forearm and his elbow propped up on his knee. He stayed in that pose for several minutes -- perhaps the only person who can turn meditation into a form of intimidation -- until slowly lifting his head from his crouch.
He spoke in a low, hushed tone, answering everything but offering little of substance. Anything more would have been expending energy that was better used elsewhere. Answering questions is probably the least favorite part of his day because it has nothing to do with his sole purpose in life at the moment: winning basketball games for the Celtics.
“He’s just amazing,” Doc Rivers would say later. “Doesn’t have to score. Obviously we need his scoring. That’s important. But he’s our life. He really is. He just does so many things out there that don’t have numbers to it. A lot of it is with his voice. In a strange way he’s a calming effect on some of our guys. If you can ever call Kevin that, he is.”
When Garnett is on the court, the Celtics are a raging machine. When he’s not, they’re the Bobcats. His plus/minus numbers are absurd, really. How can one player have so big an impact on a team with this many weapons and this many future Hall of Famers?
“He’s a once-in-a-generation player,” Keyon Dooling said. “He does everything right. He rarely makes game-plan mistakes. He covers up for a lot of mistakes. He’s just a phenomenal, phenomenal player. You guys can’t even imagine what he does for our team. He is the ultimate glue guy.”
The ultimate glue guy played like a beast in Game 5, scoring 26 points on a mixture of vicious dunks, ferocious battles in the post and feathery jump shots. Garnett had it all going, while still playing a vital role anchoring the defense, controlling the glass and taking up permanent residence in Dwyane Wade's and LeBron James' pick and rolls.
Garnett made 11-of-20 shots while Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo shot a combined 11-for-43. But in a strange twist, Garnett didn’t have to do everything Tuesday night for the Celtics to walk out of Miami with a 94-90 victory.
When he went out of the game in the third quarter, the Celtics were down seven and that notorious Miami run was just starting to pick up steam. Greg Stiemsma entered the game and by the time Garnett returned, the C's were only down three. There is no way to properly account for what those four points mean in the context of the Celtics this postseason.
“Those minutes were huge,” Dooling said. “Any time you can rest KG, it’s big for our team.”
Soon it was tied after KG flew down the lane and dunked on James Jones’ head like he was 26 years old. In the fourth quarter, Rondo made plays. Pierce made plays. Mickael Pietrus made plays and suddenly, the Celtics are one win away from the NBA finals.
“We’re a hard-fought team,” Garnett said. “We’ve been together for a while. We’ve been through all kind of countless battles. Tonight we just fought. We knew the circumstances coming down here.”
There’s something to be said about all those battles, all those tests. No, they never do seem to do things the easy way, but in those moments you learn something about each other.
You learn that Allen will watch hours of film and take untold numbers of free throws to find the flaw in his stroke and fix it to the point where he makes all eight of his free throws. You learn that Rondo can have a night where he misses nine of his first 10 shots, but he’ll still run the team and then seize the moment with a daring dash to the basket at just the right moment. You learn that Pierce will initiate a switch to get James guarding him and then bury a 3-pointer in his face while staring him down the whole time.
“That’s the thing if you look at the players on this team,” Allen said. “You take the previous situations, you place them in that moment. It’s the fourth quarter, there’s so many minutes left. Anyone watching outside you say, ‘Wow, is he really going to take the shot?’ We don’t look at it like that.”
The Heat? Well, the Heat are still searching, still looking for the right combination of players to put on the floor around James and Wade. They’ve tried three different centers in five games and none of them have worked. They picked up a technical late in the fourth quarter and once again seemed directionless in crunch time.
Rivers knows all about his team. Yes, the Celtics are different than last year, and the season before that and so on. This team is tough. This team is mentally strong. He knows his team well enough that he can ask the players to hang in there while getting their doors blown off in the first quarter, and he knows them well enough that he can switch from man to zone and back to a man that’s designed to look like a zone. Anything to gain an edge, anything to increase that razor-thin margin for error just a little.
“I asked a lot of our guys, maybe too much at times,” Rivers said. “And they came through.”
But they’re still fragile physically, so when Rivers saw that Garnett was tiring in the fourth quarter he took him out. He didn’t want to burn a timeout, but fortunately Heat coach Erik Spoelstra did it for him to give James a breather.
The Celtics were down two, and soon it was six. Rivers told Garnett not to put his warmups on, “But of course he doesn’t listen to me,” the coach said. It’s one of his tricks, one of his subtle ways to cool himself down and prepare for what comes next. Garnett sat still on the bench, in a meditative trance. No wasted energy. No wasted motion.
He watched as the Miami lead grew to six, but then Rondo saved a possession by tapping a pass through James directly to Pietrus for a corner 3, and it was time to go once more. Rondo made his only two shots of the half in quick succession. Garnett knocked down a jumper, Pietrus made another 3 and then Pierce finished the job with his dagger 3-pointer.
“Tonight was one of those cases, we have so many guys we can rely on that are good in the fourth quarter,” Allen said. “That can make plays, make shots, make free throws, that can play defense. Today you just saw it.”
Fittingly, it was Garnett who iced the game with two free throws. Now they have more work to do on Thursday in what should be a surreal atmosphere back at the Garden.
“We’re coming home,” Garnett cooed, breaking character for the first time since landing in Miami. They’re coming home with a series lead and a chance to do the improbable one more time.