BROOKLYN -- Always a candid and engaging interview, the Nets' Kevin Garnett said recently that "November was a s----- year for us" before laughing and correcting himself, "A s----- month." With old coach Doc Rivers arriving in Brooklyn with the Los Angeles Clippers, Garnett probably didn't think he'd be suiting up for a team seven games under .500 more than a quarter of the way through the season.
A convincing 102-93 victory over the road-weary Clippers on Thursday night gave the Nets their first three-game winning streak of the season and Garnett and Paul Pierce a win over their former coach, but all three admitted that it was a bit strange to be on opposite sidelines. For Garnett, a frustrating season continued despite the win.
Without Rivers, Garnett has been stuck in a rut for a large chunk of this season. He's battled a bum ankle, struggled to make his usual defensive impact, and suffered through blowouts like he was back on the Timberwolves. He even earned a spot on SI's "All-Atrocious" team as one of the five worst starters in the NBA -- a dubious distinction for a 15-time All-Star.
Garnett's paltry 15 minutes on Thursday were due predominantly to the strong play of Andray Blatche and the Nets' dominant second half, but his effectiveness was limited even when the game was competitive. The season may only be 22 games old, but Garnett's role on the Nets remains nebulous. Judging by his comments after the game, he is excited to be a part of this team, but still misses his old coach.
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"I'll always have a special place for Doc," Garnett said. "I thought he helped me grow not only as a player but as a young man. He taught us a lot about not just basketball, but the philosophies of it. About being a young man, a young black man and understanding our responsibilities...I am just grateful that he came into my life and say that I had that experience with him.
For Garnett, it was less about the franchise he used to play for, and more about his coach there.
When asked about his return to Boston two days ago, Garnett emphasized that while 'the green' will always be a part of him, the opponent that night hardly resembled his Celtics. Pierce was on his team now. Rajon Rondo was in a suit and tie. But most of all, Doc wasn't there.
Rivers is regarded as the coach who essentially saved Garnett's career. One of the most ferocious big men to ever play in the league, Garnett dominated for 12 years on mediocre Minnesota teams, but typically made quick exits in the postseason. When Garnett arrived in Boston, he joined Rivers, who had had little success as a coach up to that point.
Together, along with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, Garnett and Rivers helped establish an Eastern Conference powerhouse in Boston. Garnett was long considered one of the league's most fiery competitors, but in Boston he became a core leader on a championship team. That's what Doc helped foster.
On Thursday night, Rivers arrived with a team that's likely destined for the playoffs and possibly a title contender come June. For a moment last summer, it was rumored that Garnett and Pierce would join their old coach out west, but it was not to be. Instead, Garnett and Pierce arrived in Brooklyn, playing under a coach with no bench experience, but with a franchise point guard (Deron Williams) and a gifted scorer (Joe Johnson). Rivers says that the three communicate frequently, but they will likely never be a part of the same organization again.
While the Nets got the win on Thursday, the circumstances surrounding Rivers and Garnett are far different. Rivers is set with a team that could feasibly make a title run while Garnett is enduring one of the worst stretches of his career.
"Kevin's minutes are down. When you play low minutes, your numbers just aren't going to be what they were," Rivers said. "I think Kevin still has a lot of value to this team."
While he has still started every game he has appeared in, Garnett has career lows in shooting percentage and points per game, and his body doesn't allow for his trademark tenacious defense anymore. For a player that is the active leader in minutes played (over 48,000) and renowned for giving maximum effort, Garnett is reeling.
The Nets may be on a three-game winning streak now, but their disjointed play at the beginning of the season triggers one to ask: Why is a player like Garnett enduring this when this could be his last season?
"We're a working group," Garnett insists. "We put ourselves in this hole but like I told you earlier, we're a group that's committed towards obviously getting ourselves out of it. The changes are evident and I think the effort is a lot better."
What Garnett still does better than anyone is exert his effort and enthusiasm. In a game where his backup (Blatche) nailed jumpers and grabbed rebounds, Garnett elatedly waved his towel from the bench. During timeouts, he dispensed advice to Mason Plumlee. When he was on the floor, he menaced Blake Griffin even if he struggled to defend him and snatched balls out of the air after the whistle blew.
Garnett has long been one of the most valuable assets in the NBA, but his on-court performance is deteriorating even if his spirits remain high. If the Nets really are improving, then Garnett will aid their run through the East. He'll be an emotional leader, but his physical performance on the court may not match it like it used to.
What Garnett is missing is his coach.