Wednesday May 11th, 2011

It is easy to hate Kevin Garnett. The man talks trash in his sleep. He probably scowls while he brushes his teeth. He is one of the taller players in any game he plays, but because he is relatively skinny, he seems even taller, and it's common to see him throw a stray elbow at a smaller player. He never has the big, Ron Artest-like meltdown, but he has had a thousand little dust-ups. Earlier this year, Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva, who has a condition that causes hair loss, said Garnett called him a cancer victim. Garnett said Villanueva misheard him. But it was easy to imagine Garnett saying it.

It is easy to love Kevin Garnett. He is relentless, a ferocious rebounder, maybe the hardest-working 7-footer in the game. He has probably not spent 10 seconds of his life thinking about winning a scoring title. How many great offensive players can transform a team with their defense? With Garnett, the effort is palpable, even visible. He wants to win so badly that he doesn't even look like he is having fun. Have you ever looked at Garnett on the bench? If anything, he looks even more ticked off.

Garnett's championship window is about to slam down on his fingers. His Celtics trail the Heat 3-1 in the second round, and they are running out of time in every way. The Heat will win this series, and then what happens to the Celtics? They have an old core, and there is no reason to believe they will be able to beat either the Heat or the Bulls next spring.

It is tempting to say there are two Kevin Garnetts: The one who is easy to hate, and the one who is easy to love. But the truth is that they are one and the same. The qualities we admire and the ones that make us wince are intertwined. Love him. Hate him. But appreciate him. He is one of the seminal figures in this NBA era, and whether he knows it or not -- whether he can even admit it to himself -- he is starting to fade away.

* * *

The first time Kevin Garnett made news by getting into a fight, he was in high school. That one was controversial, too. Garnett got into a fight in a hallway in his hometown of Mauldin, S.C., and he was one of five people charged in the incident. Garnett and his family felt the incident was blown out of proportion. He transferred to Farragut Academy in Chicago.

He was as hard to pigeonhole then as he is now. He was manic worker on the court, but didn't work hard enough on his academics to qualify to play college ball as a freshman. He became the first player in decades to go straight from high school to the pros. His offensive upside seemed almost unlimited, and as the No. 1-rated high school player in the country, he could have focused on scoring. Yet even then, his defense was ahead of his offense.

Watch him now, and it's hard to believe anybody thought he was a risk: Both the talent and the attitude are obvious. But there was a bias against young draftees back then. Garnett was picked fifth by Minnesota, behind four sophomores, including three players who basically played the same position: the No. 1 pick, Joe Smith, who did not have nearly the physical skills that Garnett had; the No. 2 pick, Antonio McDyess, an All-Star talent, though not as tall as Garnett; and the No. 4 pick, Rasheed Wallace, who was probably the most gifted of any of them. It is telling that, at the time, Garnett was considered a bigger risk than Wallace. I think even Rasheed would find that funny.

Garnett's tenure in Minnesota was a lot like LeBron James' time in Cleveland. Everybody knew he was a special player, but he never had championship talent around him, and American sports fans have a strange habit of heaping the most criticism on the best players. Garnett, like LeBron, got a reputation for being a regular-season star who was afraid to take the big shot. The Timberwolves, like the Cavaliers, desperately tried to surround their star with recognizable names and failed to build a true contending team.

But hey, that is just circumstance. It doesn't tell us anything about them. No, Garnett and James are defined by what they did about it.

LeBron decided to ... well, we know what he did. No need to rehash it. Garnett, meanwhile, never demanded a trade. He did not get his coach fired. He dealt with a preposterous string of events, both comic and tragic. A salary-cap scandal robbed the Timberwolves of vital first-round picks. (In a league where wink-wink and handshake deals are the norm, the Timberwolves were foolish enough to put their illegal agreement with forward Joe Smith on paper.) Forward Malik Sealy was killed by a drunk driver as Sealy drove home from Garnett's birthday party.

Yet Garnett saw lifting the Timberwolves as his burden, his responsibility. In a league where Carmelo Anthony forced the Nuggets to trade him to a team of his choosing, and where likeable guys like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul seem to be angling to team up with other stars, let's remember that Garnett had to be convinced, in the summer of 2007, to join Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Boston. It took weeks.

And when he got there, he showed what we should have suspected all along: Garnett was never overrated. He was underrated. Remember: Pierce and Allen were never considered great defensive players, to put it kindly. Yet these Celtics have won largely with defense. Garnett imposed his will upon the team.

He did it with the same angry looks and extra shoves that have brought him criticism over the years. Sometimes Garnett acts like the badass, but the intensity is real, and his teammates feel it as much as his opponents. This is what threw his old Minnesota coach, Flip Saunders, for a loop when Saunders went to the Pistons. Those Pistons teams seemed to take as much pride in being "loose" as in winning -- before the biggest playoff games, Rasheed Wallace would be rapping and ripping on teammates in the locker room, Ben Wallace would be laughing at Rasheed, and Chauncey Billups would be smiling and playing it cool as he got treatment on his leg. Saunders didn't know what to make of it. After years of coaching KG, he was conditioned to expect hyper-intensity before games.

There have been better players in this NBA era, but very few. There has not been anybody quite like Kevin Garnett: a small forward in a center's body; a scoring machine who worries more about rebounding and defense; a champion who was loyal to a losing organization, a cheap-shot artist who never wanted his success to come cheaply.

During the last moments of this Celtics season, take a moment to watch Kevin Garnett. Look at where he is now: Spewing trash talk, barking at teammates, knocking opposing guards on their butts. It's a dark place. I think he likes it that way.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.