BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett changed the NBA two decades ago as a 6-11 power forward who played with the skills of a shooting guard. He launched a trend that has been emulated by his generation and its followers, but now, surprisingly, it looks like an elaborately extended con game. If the Celtics are to return to the NBA Finals in what may be Garnett's final month of basketball, they are going to need him to become the kind of low-post dinosaur that he and his kind worked so hard to replace.
The Celtics worked themselves back into the Eastern finals with a 101-91 win over Miami in Game 3. Another win in Game 4 can even the series at 2-2, and they are able to look ahead with optimism because on Friday they played through Garnett around the basket. The Heat had no one to match up with Garnett because of an injury to Chris Bosh, a 6-10 power forward who has spent his own career hoping to mimic Garnett's array of skills. Lacking any better options, LeBron James found himself trying to guard the great ancestor of perimeter giants.
In terms of generations it was like watching a grandfather outwitting his grandson. If he'd been born and raised before Garnett came along, then at 6-8 and 250 pounds James probably would have become a traditional post player. The game that James developed instead, with thanks to the pioneering of Garnett, was based on an unprecedented blend of size, explosiveness and skill. James is a point guard with the shoulders and thighs of a tight end.
The NBA old-timers watching this game must have been having a good laugh to see Garnett taking James into the post time and again. Garnett was doing what so many traditionalist coaches had been imploring him to do throughout his career, and he had refused because they were wrong and he was right. The NBA became more interesting and graceful because of Garnett's sleek influence. But that legacy meant nothing at the moment to Garnett and now, with the clock running out on his career, he set the sport back 60 years. He posted up like George Mikan with the same understanding that defined pro basketball originally -- that scoring closer to the basket is best, and that size wins.
"We kept telling them at the end of the day, throw it up,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "There's nobody taller than him on the floor. Throw it up in the air, Kevin will go get it.''
The Celtics were coming off a discouraging OT loss in which the smallest player on the floor outplayed everybody and lost. They might have spent the next day and a half feeling sorry for themselves and angry with the officials after Rajon Rondo's game of 44 points and 10 assists had been wasted. But Rivers would have none of that. He showed them videotape that emphasized the same message that coaches have been selling for as long as anyone can remember: Play defense, get into the open floor, and play through the big man.
``We never felt like we took advantage of Kevin in that game,'' said Rivers of the Game 2 loss. ``We also saw defensively we should be better than what we were in that game, and I thought we did all those things tonight.''
The reason James has a chance to win a championship this year, whether or not Bosh returns, is because he too is making the kinds of plays that aren't worthy of YouTube but add up crucially on the scoreboard. He is posting up more, backing in his defender, racking up free throws and attacking incessantly. Dwyane Wade was (by his high standards) ineffective while scoring 18 points (9-for-20), while James produced few highlight plays while generating 34 points on 26 shots to go with his typical eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks.
But James's transformation this year hasn't been nearly so radical as the changes Garnett has worked into his game since moving to center in the second half of the regular season. In this game, more than any other, he was establishing deep post position and trying to score in spite of double and triple teams. Garnett is known primarily for his defense, which is a constant, and offensively as a Celtic he has generated mismatches with face-up jumpers from the elbow while creating plays for teammates. Rivers has spent the past five years pleading with Garnett to be more selfish, because his instinct, admirably, has been to involve others rather than build up his own numbers.
Injuries have diminished those other options, and the absence of Bosh has created a huge opportunity for Garnett to exploit in the paint. That's why it's such a promising outcome for Boston that Garnett generated zero assists in Game 3. He was good for 24 points (10-of-16) and 11 rebounds, and the reason the Celtics won was because he looked to score above all else. It is entirely out of character for him.
"Desperation game, to be honest,'' he said after playing 34 minutes. "I feel like we played desperation basketball.''
When Rondo lobbed the ball high to his center in the second quarter and three Heat defenders converged to tip the ball momentarily out of his reach, Garnett found himself landing hard and flat on his back after he was flung down by Miami's Udonis Haslem while their four hands fought to control the ball. There was nothing flagrant about it, but as Garnett lay prone so did the Celtics' faraway dream of winning another championship. And then he rolled over and began to do pushups upon his fists as the floor beaded with his raining sweat and the crowd bellowed as they do in Miami whenever LeBron dunks.
"We're playing at home, we have to give it our all out -- and it will be out,'' said Garnett among a crowd of reporters in the Celtics' lockerroom. "The jungle was rocking tonight, I want to thank all the fans who came out.'' And then he cursed several times on camera to underline his appreciation.
So now the question becomes whether Garnett can keep doing what he has never done before, and to do it against the best opponent in the East on an every-other-night basis. Can he circle back against the trend of his own Hall of Fame career? The equation couldn't be more simple. The sooner he stops playing like a traditional center, the sooner his contract will expire and he'll be faced with the decision of whether to retire. The Celtics can keep winning for only so long as he keeps playing as if he's wearing Chuck Taylors. And yet there is nothing simple about this way. This is not what he set out to be. It is the opposite of what he was at his best.
"We've got to keep the discipline in staying with it,'' said Rivers of playing through Garnett around the basket. "Listen, this is exhausting. You get guys grabbing you and holding you, and you're trying to roll and they're fronting you. It's exhausting.''
It isn't going to get easier, either. The Heat are going to try to body Garnett on his runs into the paint, and they are going to try to back him away from the basket and squeeze him. It worked for them in the previous round when they nullified Indiana center Roy Hibbert. The difference is that Garnett, even at this late age, is a better center than Hibbert, and the Celtics have a superior playmaker in Rondo, who knows how to create the passing angles. Boston has the last of the NBA's traditional point guards, and now Rondo has a traditional big man through whom to play.
Here is Kevin Garnett, one of the great players with a past that includes an MVP award, a championship and a pioneering vision that changed the game he loves. The end is leaning on him with all of LeBron's weight, and yet Garnett refuses to dwell in his past. His future is filled with ideas that are new to him, and they're more interesting than ever.