Healthy outlook for Garnett, Celtics
BOSTON -- Every fluid move Kevin Garnett makes these days erases a memory from last season, visuals Celtics coach Doc Rivers is happy to see go.
Every shot Garnett contests makes Rivers think less and less about the parade of players who blew past Garnett on their way to the rim.
Every power move in the low post further blurs the image of a weakened Garnett being turned into a glorified jump shooter.
And every time Garnett beats his man down the floor, Rivers deposits a memory of Garnett dragging his surgically repaired right knee around into the metaphorical trash bin.
"Watching Kevin now is like night and day from last season," Rivers said. "In camp last year, I thought he was physically healthy, but mentally he wasn't sure. He was scared to do things."
Scared? Garnett? Those words have rarely been used together. Garnett has a well-earned reputation as one of the NBA's fiercest competitors. Over a 15-year career, he has played at least 80 games eight times, and in four of those seasons played all 82. Last year was different. Garnett played 69 games, but wasn't 100 percent in any of them, the result of an offseason operation that removed thick bone spurs from his right knee, the same knee Garnett subsequently hyperextended last December.
"It was a struggle [for Garnett] last year," Nets coach Avery Johnson said. "Sometimes your mind wants to do it and your body can't."
Indeed, Garnett's body failed him last season, leaving the Celtics without the nimble defensive backstop who helped make them one of the NBA's best defensive teams. Boston led the NBA in defensive field goal percentage in 2007-08 and 2008-09; last season, it tied for ninth. His vulnerability known, Garnett became a target. In a game against Washington last March, Wizards coach Flip Saunders, who coached Garnett for 10 seasons in Minnesota, ordered his team to take it to Garnett. Andray Blatche did, pumping in 23 points against a helpless Garnett.
"I remember watching that game," an Eastern Conference scout said, "and thinking, 'Man, this guy is finished.' "
But as concerned as the Celtics were about Garnett's play, they were equally worried about how they would play without him.
"The big thing was Kevin's minutes," Rivers said. "His injury affected our individual defense and our pick-and-roll defense, but what hurt worse was we couldn't leave him on the floor. When Kevin is off the floor defensively, whether he has one leg or not, we're not as good. All those games we had to take him out, that hurt us."
As he continued to battle, Garnett's coaches and teammates could see his frustration grow.
"Offensively, he understood what he could or couldn't do," Rivers said. "He had become a pick-and-pop player. It frustrated him that he couldn't post more. He couldn't get his balance. Defensively, guys were driving by him, beating him off the dribble. He couldn't get blocked shots."
Some on the team offered advice. Ray Allen was in Garnett's ear often, whispering to him not to get down or be discouraged by his limitations. Others chose to take a more hands-off approach.
"I thought there were so many voices in his ear last year, the last thing he needed was me," Rivers said. "The more you tell a guy what he should or shouldn't do, the more you're reinforcing to him that he is not healthy. I almost treated him like he was completely healthy and just left him alone."
Rivers didn't ignore Garnett's limitations, though; he cut into his minutes, keeping Garnett to 28 to 32 per game in the second half of the season. It was a decision that, to say the least, didn't sit well with his star.
"Usually I'm pretty good with them as far as give and take," Rivers said. "But there was no give and take with that one. That was a this-is-what-we're-going-to-do conversation. This is not a debate here. This is what we're doing. In the end, he realized it was good for him. But it's not something you want to do ... we were losing games we could have won."
Of course, the decision to keep Garnett, Paul Pierce and Allen fresh eventually paid off. The Celtics stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs, knocking out Miami, Cleveland and Orlando before succumbing to the Lakers in the Finals in seven games. But Pau Gasol -- the same Pau Gasol who was shut down by KG in the 2008 Finals -- outplayed Garnett.
"Gasol having that good series," Rivers said, "really ticked Kevin off."
The Celtics are expecting a lot from Garnett this season. Another summer of rest has clearly helped the healing process. Garnett averaged 9.1 points in 17.7 minutes in the preseason and looked, according to Rivers, "as close to his old form as he has ever been." Teammates talk about how Garnett's cat-like quickness has returned and how he moves around the practice floor unencumbered.
"There's no indecision in his moves," Marquis Daniels said. "The intensity was always there, but his movements are more fluid now. He looks like he's out there skating."
Said Garnett: "I feel strong. I feel vibrant."
Miami's free-agent windfall has stolen the headlines, but the resurgence of a healthy Garnett is no less significant. If Garnett is anything close to the player he was in 2007-08, Boston -- which reloaded with the additions of veterans Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West -- is as big up front and as deep as it has ever been.
"I don't think anything less than perfect, even though I'm a human being," Garnett said. "The way I work and go at things is to better myself in perfect terms."