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Garnett feeds off doubters to carry Celtics to series-clinching win


No one is completely sure what Kevin Garnett will do next season, when he will become a free agent for the first time in his career. There are those close to him that believe he will retire, that the prospect of another 82 games on his achy right knee will force him out. It takes a lot of work to get Garnett's surgically repaired knee game ready, sources say, and some friends think that after 17 seasons and more than $290 million in career earnings, KG will call it quits.

Garnett will have a difficult decision to make this summer, because NBA general managers won't let him quietly walk away. Garnett will turn 36 next Saturday but still has a high value -- a value that was prominently on display Thursday night in Boston, when the oldest starter on the floor stuffed the stat sheet with 28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in the Celtics' series-clinching 83-80 win over Atlanta. When Boston needed a big bucket, there was KG. When they needed a stop, KG provided one.

"He was phenomenal," said Doc Rivers. "He bailed us out."

Yes, Garnett came up big. But then again, he has been coming up big all season. Boston was dead in the water when Jermaine O'Neal went down for the season in February, center-less, muscle-less, unable to match up physically with anyone up front. Then Garnett slid over to the pivot, and suddenly order was restored. Garnett started at center eight times in 1,195 games before this season. This year he started 36, averaging 16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists.

He did it again on Thursday, a night where Paul Pierce battled through an injury and Ray Allen continued to struggle coming back from one. He banged with Al Horford in the paint and blanketed Josh Smith on the perimeter. After Rivers saw Garnett pass out of the post one too many times in the first half, he told his superstar to knock it off during the break.

"I told him at halftime I counted four times where he had the ball in the post and he wants to move the ball so quickly, he moved the ball where he was deep on the post," Rivers said. "And I said, 'Kevin, when the ball hits your hands, I want you to hold it. And wait. And then go to work. No more being a ball mover.' And I thought in the second half he took that advice and he was sensational."

Garnett had a little extra juice, too, thanks to some stinging remarks from Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. At a luncheon in Atlanta on Wednesday, Gearon called Garnett "the dirtiest guy in the league," a message that was quickly relayed back to Garnett. Gearon isn't the first to slap Garnett with the dirty tag, but the words clearly settled in. When Garnett addressed the media after the game, he didn't even wait for a question about the remarks.

"First, I want to say thank you to their owner for giving me some extra gas tonight," Garnett said. "My only advice to him is that next time he opens his mouth [to] actually know what he is talking about with Xs and Os versus checkbooks and bottom lines. Just because you have a lot of money doesn't mean you can open your mouth."

There is motivation everywhere, and Garnett just seems to find it and vacuum it up. Talk of his age is everywhere, speculation of how a fading great can stand firm against the rising beasts in both conferences. I don't read your columns, Garnett told reporters on Thursday, but everything you say gets back to me.

"I take my craft very seriously," he said. "Being 35, I put a lot of work into my craft. I always have, since '95. It's almost like you guys are shocked. Like this isn't what I do every day. Like this isn't what I am built for. It comes off disrespectful. You guys calling me old -- that just fuels the fire. Whoever is doing that, I appreciate that."

The fire has been stoked in Garnett, perhaps in part because this could be his last season, perhaps because he knows this is almost certainly the Big Three's last hurrah. Allen is probably gone when this run is through, bound for Miami, New York or some other contender. Pierce has been trade bait before while Boston has made it clear that Rondo is available for the right price.

"This is it," Pierce said. "We might never have this opportunity again."

The opportunity is there, and it's a big one. Across the conference, titans have been exposed. Chicago is gone, erased by Philadelphia after losing Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to injury. Miami thumped a one-dimensional New York team out of the playoffs in five games, but Boston's memory of three straight wins over the Heat in April lingers. The Celtics still have Garnett to throw at Chris Bosh, still have a healthy Rajon Rondo to cause havoc against a Miami team that has no answer for him.

The championship window is closing for Boston, but there still is space for them to sneak one more in. The opportunity is here, now. Everyone knows it, Garnett most of all.