Who is better than Kevin Garnett?
The answer, when the question is framed to Garnett's newfound position, is nobody. Ever since the sidelining of Dwight Howard last month, Garnett has been the best center in the NBA. The Celtics broke open a 107-91 win Wednesday to reclaim a 2-1 lead over the 76ers around the 27 points, 13 rebounds and four assists of Garnett.
The renewal of Garnett (13-of-17 from the field) is the most inspiring story of these unpredictable playoffs. Think about all of the younger stars who have been injured -- Howard, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh and on and on. Now consider the mileage on Garnett, who will turn 36 Saturday. He has played over 50,000 minutes since he turned pro as a 19-year-old. Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant are the only active players to put in more time over the regular season and postseason, and yet here is Garnett, looking more spry and dangerous than so many of his younger competitors who have complained about his belligerence in recent years.
Ever since he suffered the 2009 knee injury that arguably cost the Celtics at least one championship, his rivals have enjoyed accusing Garnett of running a deficit in bark over bite. No one can accuse him of failing to back up his talk any longer. Neither Andrew Bynum nor Roy Hibbert can match the unifying impact that Garnett has had on his team recently. Coming off their disappointing loss of home court in Game 2 of this conference semifinal, Garnett responded by converting eight of his first nine field goals as the Celtics seized control in the second quarter of Game 3. In so doing he was reinforcing what he had told his teammates after Boston had been outplayed down the stretch Monday.
"I had to just remind the younger guys and the new guys on how we succeed here, and the creed and Celtics basketball and what we do here,'' he said.
It was all about sharing the ball and contributing in a variety of ways. Altogether they responded by outrebounding their hosts 44-37 -- a rare categorical win -- while winning all of the major areas. After an 0-for-7 start, the Celtics made 33 of their next 51 (64.7 percent) through three quarters, by which time their lead was a secure 89-66. They out-assisted the Sixers 26-22, while committing seven turnovers. And they were most aggressive, outscoring Philadelphia 22-17 at the foul line.
Garnett's game was a medley of faceup jumpers, post-ups and drives into the paint. He victimized Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand and any poor Sixer who happened to be mismatched against him, including Evan Turner, whom Garnett hipchecked out of his way. He was merciless with his twitching, juking drives against Brand, turning away afterward to lambaste him and his red-shirted sellout crowd.
"He's rebounding, he's defending, he's talking,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers of Garnett, who moved to center when Boston ran out of alternatives in the second half of the season. "He was really upset after the game [Monday] night because he didn't think we played the right way as a team.''
Rivers thought about all of Garnett's contributions before focusing on the one that he is exploiting more than ever in his five years with the Celtics.
"He is relentless in the post,'' said Rivers. "That's an area where Kevin, you've got to remind him to go down there ... I would say that's the No. 1 thing.''
In the opening quarter Philadelphia shot 61.9 percent (13-of-21) with an 8-2 advantage in assists and two turnovers -- and yet its lead was a scant 33-28. Overall Brand, Hawes and Turner were a combined 4-of-24 for 11 points.
"We ran into a Celtic team that had a real sense of purpose about them tonight,'' said coach Doug Collins.
In the middle quarters Boston stretched out its lead until the fans couldn't take any more of it and sent their 76ers onto the fourth quarter with a storm of booing.
The Sixers' strategy has been to push athletically in hope that the injured Celtics would not be able to hold up. On this night the Celtics pushed back strategically via Rajon Rondo, whose 23 points and 14-1 assist-turnover ratio fairly reflected his command.
"Rondo was extremely serious in shootaround this morning,'' said Rivers. "He really set the tone for our mental approach.''
Rondo played through Garnett early, and when Garnett moved to the bench in the seventh minute Rondo didn't let up. Over a span of 3:11 Rondo took every shot for Boston to personally outscore the Sixers 9-7. He drove inside four times for two layups and a pair of free throws, and waved up Garnett's replacement Greg Stiemsma to set a screen so he could step back brazenly for a three.
While Rondo rolled, Paul Pierce was fuming. He wasn't mad at Rondo, whose incessant driving softened the defense. Instead he was angry with his own 0-for-6 start, which lowered his shooting for the series to 19 percent (5-of-26).
"I just wanted to be aggressive,'' said Pierce. "That was the only thing I wanted to do.''
When Rondo at last relinquished control of the ball to Pierce at the elbow, Pierce burst past Andre Iguodala left-handed for a two-handed dunk and a three-point play, dangling from the rim and slapping the backboard on his way down. Next time he did basically the same thing. He had missed several layups already, he was angry, and he wasn't going to leave anymore layups to chance.
He would follow that frustrated start by converting six of his next 11 to go with his 11-of-14 from the free-throw line. Pierce finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds (five offensive), four assists and three steals, and afterward said his sprained left knee was, ahem, "OK.''
Game 4 on Friday becomes one of the most important nights of Boston's season. Closing out this series in five games would provide necessary rest for the injuries of Pierce, Ray Allen (one field goal attempt for three points in 25 minutes), Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus, who went 3-for-4 from the three-point line in his return to the scene of his frightening concussion in March. A quick win would also establish the Celtics' style, tone and confidence before a potential conference against the Heat. If Bosh can't recover quickly -- and many who know something about abdominal strain injuries believe he'll be diminished or unavailable -- then how will Miami match up with Garnett?
He has always caused problems as a power forward facing up from the perimeter. Now that Garnett is attacking incessantly with his back to the basket, his powers have been magnified. This is such a fascinating team of vulnerability and resiliency, on one night looking as if one more injury might be mortal, and then uniting as if another championship is within reach. The rejuvenation of Garnett gives Boston the best center to go with the most dynamic point guard in the Eastern bracket. Can anyone say what will happen next? Of course not -- because no one imagined the Celtics could do what they're doing now.