Back in February of this year, when the Boston Celtics defeated the Washington Wizards 99-88 in Washington D.C., I got an up close and personal look at Kevin Garnett and his game. He led the team in scoring that night with 19 points, and the vintage Garnett intimidation tactics made their usual appearances. But there were also some noticeable chinks in his armor.
Garnett, who has averaged nearly 11 rebounds per game during his career, only grabbed six and none of them were on the offensive end of the floor. When the Wizards took shots in the paint, he had neither the lift nor the desire to challenge the shot–something that had been a staple in his game, particularly during the Celtics’ 2008 championship run. But there was something even more disturbing I noticed that gave me considerable pause, despite how well he played that night.
Each time Garnett would shoot an outside jumper, or jump for one of his six rebounds, he would come down on his left knee first, then slowly bring down the surgically repaired right knee. The move itself seemed very subtle and harmless initially, but when Garnett was constantly behind the fast break on offense, and late getting back on defense, it became more noticeable. I remember telling my editor a couple days later that the explosive Garnett we knew and loved at one point was gone.
Then in April, shortly before the playoffs began, Hall of Fame writer Jackie MacMullan wrote a brilliant piece on Garnett and his injury struggles. In the article, Garnett spoke on how the recovery from knee surgery was a frustrating process. He talked about how frustrated he was with so-called experts saying he was finished, and that people (including himself) needed to understand that it takes a year after surgery to truly recover and regain that explosiveness.
When I read the article, it reminded me of so many athletes in basketball and all sports, who dwell in the river of denial towards the end of their career. From Jermaine O’Neal to Chris Webber to LaDaninan Tomlinson, you constantly hear of athletes convincing themselves and others, that redemption and recovery is just around the corner. They use the cliched “me against the world” adage to get them pumped, but in the end father time seems to reign supreme.
Then the playoffs began and disavowed me of that notion.
In the first two playoff series with Miami and Cleveland, Garnett averaged 17 points and eight rebounds, but more importantly his fire seemed to return. He was animated, he was an agitator, he took shots out of the air during stoppages of play, and it seemed to be 2008 all over again. As I watched that version of Garnett, I remember thinking that he was right when he told Jackie MacMullan that he just needed time to regain that confidence in his game.
In the Eastern Conference finals match up with the Orlando Magic, Garnett seemed to regress a bit. He still managed to average eight rebounds per game, but his scoring average dipped to just 10 points. I could not decide whether his right knee or Dwight Howard was bothering him more, so I decided to blame it on Howard. Plus Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were playing lights out, so I rationalized his drop off in performance by telling myself Garnett was just going with the flow. Besides, with there being a week before the NBA Finals began, he would regain that nimble movement and return to dominance.
But the active Garnett did not show up during the Celtics 102-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He had 16 points (on 7-of-16 shooting) and just four rebounds, and he did not look confident in his shot or his ability to elevate. I counted at least three instances where he reverted to landing on his healthy left knee first, before slowly bringing the other one down. And sadly, there was a point in the fourth quarter, when Garnett missed two point blank layups.
Unlike during the Orlando Magic series, when the rest of his teammates were hitting on all cylinders, Garnett did not get a whole lot of help in Game 1–which only magnified his shortcomings. To make matters worse, Pau Gasol, who Garnett pushed around with ease during the 2008 NBA Finals, had 23 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocked shots–the kind of numbers Garnett used to produce with relative ease. Gasol went on to say this during his post game press conference:
“On Kevin’s part, he’s also lost some explosiveness. He’s more of a jump shooter now you could say, comes off the lane. Before he had a really, really quick first step and was getting to the lane and he was more aggressive then. Time passes and we all suffer it one way or another..”
Even though Gasol backed off his comments a bit on Saturday by saying Garnett was “still a terrific player”, it was still shocking to me that a player notoriously labeled as soft like Gasol, would be so bold as to hint that Garnett was done. But given that I have been going back and forth with those same thoughts, Gasol’s comments were also telling. Maybe Garnett peaked in the first two rounds of the playoffs; maybe that knee has withstood more punishment than it can stand; maybe old age is a larger factor than anyone initially thought.
Game 2 of the NBA Finals tonight, and even though the Celtics as a whole to play much better in order to tie the series, the focus and much of the pressure will be on the one they call the Big Ticket. Will he somehow be able to summon that spry player that was so dominant in 2008 and in the first two rounds of the 2010 playoffs? Or will his knees and energy level betray him and force him to be an on-the-court spectator?
Pau Gasol, along with rest of us, will find out at tip-off tonight.