Celtics, Garnett refresh Timberwolves' memory

garnett.pngTimberwolves fans, please remember, if it's not too painful, last year's NBA Finals and the moment we could refer to as "The Great Ecstasy of Kevin Garnett." You might recall that, after handing out his due props and basically ignoring Michelle Tafoya except to complement her suit, he screamed, over and over, to nobody and everybody, the words "anything is possible!!"  If there are reasons to watch sports better than the ones offered by those words, I can't think of any. That spine-tingler was, of course, followed very shortly by the suggestion that KG's exclamation was actually a botched attempt to rep his sneaker company's "Impossible is Nothing" slogan. I'm not sure which is more depressing: the possibility that this is accurate, or the gross cynicism that would lead some folks to that conclusion.

Depressing, yes, but it points to one of the more difficult aspects of KG's persona. He is seemingly uncomplicated: his one and only motivation is to play basketball as well as humanly possible and he brings to that end an outsized but unbelievably focused passion. Which passion seems so outsized and burns so incredibly hot that it can be hard to believe in.  Can he possibly be this manically, sincerely fired up about basketball? This is, of course, one of the great conundrums of public people: what is authentic, what is manufactured? What's really you and what do you just want me to see (see: any political campaign)?

The Birdman

Now, although every athlete or artist brings aspects of herself to the stage/pitch/court, I think it's on us to try and separate the private person from the performer. I don't know Kevin Garnett at all (though I am, admittedly, totally willing to be charmed by his sincerity) but there did seem, in those sad last Wolves years, to be a whiff of intentional martyrdom in his stubborn loyalty. But I can tell you that, as a player, the guy just radiates authenticity. By that I mean that, as with Bird and Magic, his abilities cohere almost perfectly with his efforts; when he plays, he gives himself fully, humbly to the game.  

That said, KG is an unconventional superstar. He is rarely able (or willing) to take over games with his offense. He does not possess Jordan's perimeter scoring ability, nor Tim Duncan's flawless low-post technique, nor Magic's ballhandling and preternatural court vision. But because he is, freakishly for a seven footer, able to do all of these things well, the Wolves were tempted to build their team around his multi-dimensionality, forcing Garnett to be the focus of everything they did.  His limitations and his selflessness, feigned or not, prevented him from ever being that kind of star. Its quite telling that his two most successful seasons--last year and'03-'04, when the Wolves, abetted by Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, reached the Western Conference finals--were ones in which Garnett was part of an ensemble.

 Let us be clear, though: Kevin Garnett is a beautiful, extraordinary basketball player.  He is one of the greatest rebounders and most versatile, disruptive defenders in the game's history (the fact that last year was his first defensive player of the year award is both ludicrous and a testament to how difficult it is to actually measure an individual player's defense). Even in a profession full of bewilderingly tall, athletic men, KG's physical gifts are astounding; it's really just ridiculous that a guy so incredibly long could be so graceful and fluid. His avian, towering baseline fadeaway jumper is still one of the more astonishing things I've ever seen a human do. Like Bird and Jordan, he is psychotically competitive. But unlike those two KG gives off, though his ferocious play and his embracing passion, a palpable sense of joy, a desire to reach out to his audience. He is an athletic version of that great Springsteenian maxim: the greatest performances are the ones in which the audience wishes they were on the stage and the performers wish they were in the audience. Anything is possible.  

Critical Beatdown

This Celtics team seems better attuned, either by design or just because they're totally loaded with stars, to Garnett's specific aptitudes. He is not forced to carry the offensive load, deferring to Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, taking high percentage shots when they come his way. Defensively, the Celtics make use of his length and athletic ability by allowing him to range relatively freely: pressuring the ball on the perimeter, filling the lane to stop penetrating guards, and providing weakside help on big men.  That he can actually do all of these things is testament to Garnett's defensive tenacity and creativity.  On one possession in the third quarter of the Celtics' dominating 95-78 victory over the Wolves on Friday night (oh yeah, there's an actual game to talk about), Garnett trapped Wolves point guard Sebastian Telfair, forcing a desperate crosscourt pass. He then quickly recovered to aggressively contest a shot in the paint and then tipped the miss to an open teammate.

That 35-10 crusher of a third quarter is where the Celtics won the game. Taking advantage of a sluggish Boston start and a 16-6 free throw disparity, the Wolves had a 39-36 halftime lead, despite shooting only 27.3% from the field. But after the break, the Celtics' smothering halfcourt trap totally disrupted the Wolves offense, forcing them to scramble just to beat the shot clock. When the Wolves did get open looks, they were too shell-shocked to convert. The Celtics' pressure seemed to cause the Wolves to wilt at the other end, too; the Celtics shot 65% on the quarter (to the Wolves' 11.8%--that looks ugly and it is) with a nice combination of offensive rebounds, easy layups and wide-open jumpers. The Wolves unwittingly aided the carnage by matching Kevin Love with Garnett. Garnett was, rightly, so unimpressed by the rookie's offensive game that he didn't go anywhere near him. Instead, he roamed from three-point line to basket, trapping, denying passing lines and creating havoc. And Love, in going 3-10, did nothing to discourage the tactic. From 6:37 in the third, when Love entered the game, to the end of the quarter, the Celtics went on a 22-4 run.

Garbage time saw the Wolves inflate their numbers with the potently white combo of Love, Brian Cardinal and Mark Madsen (plus Rodney Carney, who is like Corey Brewer but with a better vertical and a worse jumper, if that's possible) but, for the regulars, the final stats read like a lamentation: Al Jefferson went 8-20 and looked tentative, often shying away from Garnett in the paint; Mike Miller took only four shots and never once had an open look; Ryan Gomes missed eight of his 11; Sebastian Telfair, uncharacteristically, hit six of 10 shots (mostly because the Celtics allowed him to) but he also turned the ball over four times to go along with only three assists. And poor Randy Foye continued his recent deterioration with one of his worst games as a pro. Foye made only 2-12 (and never got to the line), picked up only one assist, to go along with two turnovers and four fouls. He forced shots; he looked timid and lost.

The Wolves have lost in a lot of creative ways so far this year, but this was the first time they were totally overmatched, looking directionless and intimidated.  They responded  on Sunday with their best game of the season by far, a 106-80 road win over Detroit (Randy Foye also came back nicely, with his best game of the year: 23 points on 9-12 shooting, 14 assists and only two turnovers). But the Celtics' game was game was another sick reminder of just how much the Wolves gave up when they traded Garnett (as if we needed it). Or rather, when they finally admitted that they lacked the imagination and competence to maximize his talents, to channel his great ecstasy. Here's another: just before tipoff, KG, bristling with motion and energy, bounced down to the baseline, faced the crowd, leaped and gave one of his great bellows. And the fans behind that basket, like it was second nature, sweet old habit, stood and roared.

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