Posted Dec 7 2010 11:47AM
The longer they're together, the more natural it seems. The more opportunities Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal get to click on the court and clown off it, to win four out of every five games for the Boston Celtics and then sit back to watch Glen Davis and Semih Erden mop up those closing minutes, the easier it gets to hold these two competing thoughts at the same time. Or more specifically, to see these two formerly competing giants on the same team.
Now, in the twilight -- both players are working on what most assume are their final contracts, lapsing after 2011-12 -- Garnett and O'Neal have meshed well enough that you start to wonder what it might have been like had they teamed up sooner. Eight or nine years ago, say, when one was 25, the other was 29 and the rest of the NBA would not have stood a chance.
Um, you might wonder about that. I might wonder about that. But the two future Hall of Famers in question haven't wasted a moment pondering such a past.
"It wouldn't have worked at all," said O'Neal.
"It wouldn't have happened," said Garnett.
After running the idea past both of the Boston big men recently, the concept was a non-starter. Worse, it might have been like crossing the streams in "Ghostbusters," triggering all sorts of nastiness and disappointment. A Shaq-Kobe thing, only at eye level.
"We'd either have eight," O'Neal said, meaning championship rings, "or we'd have had problems. In my opinion, I don't think it would work."
The obvious snag would have been payroll. For much of this decade, Garnett and O'Neal ranked near the top of all NBA wage earners, soaking up more than $40 million annually on deals that were "grandfathered" in before the maximum salaries collectively bargained in 1999. In 2003-04, their combined take was $52.7 million, KG from Minnesota, Shaq from the Lakers. There only would have been enough money left to pay D Leaguers to deliver the ball to them.
But the real reasons that the two wouldn't have played nice together have nothing to do with cash.
For O'Neal, the basketball wouldn't have made sense. Two big bodies, two offensive missions, two clashing games. "He was a guy who demanded the ball all the time," Shaq said, "and he needed it in some of the same spots as myself. Now we complement each other."
For Garnett, it was something deeper, more desperate. He had arrived in the NBA as a teenager in 1995, by which time O'Neal already had been to The Finals once and established himself as a staggering force of nature, his impact apparent in the stats, in the standings and on the Richter scale. And after Garnett's rookie season with the Timberwolves, O'Neal headed west from Orlando to Los Angeles. Soon, all roads headed through Shaq. Or ended there, like Wile E. Coyote pancaking on a painted tunnel.
"First off, Shaq was winning rings," Garnett said the other night. "You chase the guys who are winning it. And Shaq was the most dominant big man of my era. I was chasing him. To get the respect. The value in this is, you dethrone the king. I looked at it like, 'Diesel's winning rings. You've got to dethrone him.' I really thought, with enough personnel, that I really could do that.
"I don't know if that was me being naïve or me just believing in my craft and my team. That's what it is, that's how I went at it."
Didn't happen. While Garnett was shedding his training wheels, O'Neal was revving up with Kobe Bryant and their L.A. crew to win NBA championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002. In 2003, the Timberwolves suffered their seventh consecutive first-round elimination, this time to the Lakers themselves. A year later, in Garnett's MVP season, the No. 1-seeded Wolves were too banged up by the Western Conference finals to topple the bickering Lakers, a task Detroit handled one round later.
It's legit to say that a mental block had developed for Minnesota, too, against the franchise that once had called the Twin Cities home. In Garnett's first 20 meetings against Shaq's Lakers, the Wolves were 3-17. While Garnett was getting bumped each spring in the first round, inching along with 47 playoff games, O'Neal was rumbling to 122 postseason appearances while both were in the West. Garnett wasn't dethroning anyone.
O'Neal moved East for the 2004-05 season and soon picked up his fourth ring. Garnett's Minnesota run had fizzled and he got to Boston for the 2007-08 season -- by which time O'Neal was crossing back over to Phoenix. They clashed head-to-head, same conference, again last season, with Garnett's Celtics putting out O'Neal's Cavaliers. But there was no jewelry at the end, Bryant's Lakers winning the title.
And now, finally, they're together. KG hearts Shaq, Shaq hearts KG. Elder statesman in the Celtics' dressing room. Cohorts, not obstacles. Combined, their numbers -- 15.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.4 apg for Garnett and 11.3, 6.5, 0.9 for O'Neal -- are about what one of them would amass, by himself, back in the day. But it is no more about simple addition now than it is about testosterone.
"We speak now about the fights and the competition and us going at it," Garnett said. "I look back on it, you couldn't tell me when I was going up against him that they were that good. I believed in my craft just like he believed in his.
"The battles you go through are what makes you. The tough skin. ... You can't teach experience. You can't teach what hurts. You can't teach fightin' for something. There's no synthetic feeling for that. You know what I mean? It's not like you can simulate that in practice.
"You fight and you chase something. We're all men here, we've all chased the girls once or twice. Or man. Or whatever your preference is. Then to finally get that date and actually get that relationship and actually go forth to everything that you wish it was, it's very similar to that."
O'Neal, even when their teams were butting heads, always referred to KG as "Mr. Garnett." He liked the way the younger, leaner guy played, he liked the way Garnett got to the peak of his NBA powers.
"He did it the right way," O'Neal said. "Nothing was given to him -- he worked his way up. He had a lot of battles. He's always respected me. And I've always liked his game because he was allowed to do stuff that I was never allowed to do."
By the refs? By his coaches? By the game, O'Neal said. "When I was young and coming up, the [double-teams] came so fast, I had to go to my one or two moves," Shaq said. "He was able to step outside and shoot jumpers. Back to the basket sometimes. I had the ability to do that stuff, too, but never been able to use it."
Celtics coach Glenn Rivers said the Big Three of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen congealed at the right time three years ago. Now he's seeing it again up front. "It's amazing how guys can be rivals, not even like each other at times," Rivers said, "then you trade 'em and all of a sudden that stuff is forgotten. Rasheed [Wallace] was a good example of that when he joined us last year.
"They're at the point where they don't have anything left to prove. It's all about team wins for them now. So it all fits. Shaq loves guys who play hard and play the right way. He has an amazing respect for Kevin, and it goes back and forth."
Too bad we can't throw Tim Duncan into the beaker and really test the chemistry of former West frontcourt warriors of a certain age.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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