Posted May 31 2012 6:36PM
BOSTON -- No coach ever has had to implore Kevin Garnett to bring more nasty on a basketball court. Not in this lifetime, not in this galaxy.
But as the Boston Celtics' postseason grinds ever closer to completion -- whether that end comes in two games or at most another dozen -- a question hangs over Garnett and his team that brings its own intensity: Where might he take his nasty next?
Back to Boston? To another NBA team? Or home to stay, where he can glare at the kids who stray onto his lawn and talk trash once a week with the garbage men?
It is a decision -- actually, a sequence of them -- that hangs over the Hall of Fame-bound player, the Celtics and any other teams that might be interested in getting some KG for themselves. It's a situation about which Garnett isn't talking, of course, since he does so little of that these days once he steps off a court, his rapport with the media more cantankerous than ever.
But at least one league source who knows Garnett well thinks a proud, strong exit and, as they say in show biz, a chance to leave 'em wanting more might be his plan. "I think that's what we've been seeing in these playoffs," the friend of Garnett said. "The way he's been playing, it's like he wants to go out on his terms."
Based on his play through this postseason and, really, since a shift to the center position right after the All-Star break in late February, Garnett would appear to have significant useful tread on his tires. A move to the middle that he would have considered limiting, even insulting, back in his Swiss Army knife-prime as a 20-10-5 guy offensively and five-spots matchup defensively has been, at age 36, rejuvenating.
His shooting range, always strong out to 20 feet, is a clear advantage now over the big-man rivals uncomfortable straying that far from the rim. He still is one of the baddest defenders on the block, playing free safety or centerfield (depending on your preferred sports analogy) while retaining much of his quickness and all of his instincts, length and wingspan to help and recover.
Through Boston's 15 playoff games, Garnett is averaging 19.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 37.2 minutes, his biggest numbers since he left Minnesota in 2007. With Ray Allen hobbled and the Celtics' front line thin, Garnett has been a focal point of their offense, leading the team in scoring seven times this postseason with nine double-doubles.
Given the team's limitations up front and the way he's playing, bringing back Garnett on a short-term deal at a reduced rate from his $21.2 million salary this season seems a no-brainer. Yet the skills and traits that keep him attractive to Boston also might open up a world of possibilities across the league, if Garnett hits free agency for the first time in his 17-year NBA career.
Imagine his defensive presence and, more important, inclinations (as an influence at that end of the floor on teammates) on, heck, any number of contenders. Miami, for instance. Philadelphia. Dallas. Or even Minnesota, back where it all began back in 1995 when a beaming, affable 19-year-old (where did that guy go?) came straight out of high school. He breathed life into the moribund Timberwolves and, if he didn't quite change the league, he at least caused it to pivot, because after Garnett came Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and Dwight Howard, bringing rule changes and a different way of looking at young talent.
There's Brooklyn as a possibility, with the Nets hungry for marquee names and more serious court cred. Then there is the Los Angeles option, which might seem traitorous to longtime Celtics fans if Forum blue somehow bleed into the equation. But then, Garnett's permanent home sits on the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, his immediate and extended families are out there and now there are two viable teams there too, one of which features a crazed comrade in arms (Bryant).
And yet for every reason why Garnett will be back in 2012-13, with the Celtics or with someone else's name across his chest, there is another arguing he might not.
Boston might need him next season, but that still won't slow Danny Ainge's plans to start the overhaul. Garnett is devoted to coach Doc Rivers, and Paul Pierce will be back, but Allen almost certainly won't be. The dynamic of the team will change with its personnel and Garnett would have to accept the reality that his days of playing for another ring would be over.
Signing elsewhere? There are no guarantees of a championship, a Finals trip or even a robust playoff run. In Boston, what was conceived as a three-year window of opportunity got pushed out to five, but he would have no such time assurances at his next stop.
Here's another factor: Those familiar with him know how much Garnett loathes change. It was clear in his reactions to the constant roster-churnings back in Minnesota that, with the exception of 2004, maxed out his Timberwolves days with chronic first-round exits. He almost whiffed on the trade to Boston -- then just 31, he had to be sold on that uprooting -- and he has been irritated by the trade rumors that have cropped up more recently, threatening to rock his world anew.
So to change it all up again, by his own hand, and face expectations that might be out of synch with the reality of his game now? For fans who wouldn't much care about what he did back when and with a team that might see him now as a "piece" rather than a future retired number for their rafters? Maybe for the dollars. Never mind that Garnett has earned more than $290 million in playing salary alone in his career, with tens of millions more from endorsements, playoff shares and assorted side deals. He likes the business rewards of the NBA and getting lowballed to stay in Boston might prompt him to seek grass that's greener.
The flip side of that pride, though, is what might shut him down for good.
Like Bryant, Garnett's expectations for himself always have burned hotter than any outsider's for him. He is an alpha dawg, not the type to mellow into a supporting role. Fifteen minutes a night as somebody's backup or as a ceremonial starter likely won't cut it, and any slide toward a player more ordinary figures to be even less pretty to be around than it will be to witness.
Already there have been signs of slippage. Two years ago, Garnett was all but written off when he got abused early in the 2010 Finals by Lakers forward Pau Gasol. He fired back -- his gimpy knees and general health then had more to do with it -- and restored a pecking order he could live with. But this spring again, there have been moments of ineffectiveness. Air balls. Struggles in the clutch in Game 2 against Miami, missing the only two shots he took in overtime. Plays on which he has been attacked inside by rivals who never would have dared a few years ago.
Now add to that the wear and tear of his heavy minutes this spring. And then the prospect of more grueling offseason workouts, once embraced for the edge they always gave him, now needed just to stay even.
There's also been a perceptible change in how Garnett's blast-furnace act gets received around the league. The Big Ticket's bark always has been worse than his bite but now he gets treated almost like the crazy uncle at holiday dinner. "Oh, that's just KG going off again," it's as if they're saying. "Don't mind him."
The younger generations of NBA stars respect what he's done, but they're not about to bow down. LeBron James literally laughed as Garnett yapped at him near the end of Game 1 Monday. Dwyane Wade just stared up at him -- incredulous, disappointed, bemused -- after Garnett shoved him to the floor and then glowered down, hands on hips, in Game 2. Someone named James Jones -- that's how Garnett's ego would say it -- nearly mixed it up with him Wednesday too, though both Jones and Garnett probably were happy to have teammates intervene.
To the public, Garnett is almost certain to exit as an NBA villain. There have been too many elbows, too many shoves, too much woofing overall. Those borderline-dirty moves he goes to were all done to him early in his career -- by Karl Malone, by Cedric Ceballos, by Kevin Willis -- and, in Garnett's view, are just veteran tricks for the young boys to learn. But they're part of what has gotten him booed throughout the league -- in those markets for which he's never worn white, anyway.
In an age of AAU fraternization among supposed rivals, Garnett's apparent dislike of opponents and certainly, his extreme competitiveness ought to be lauded and copied. But he is his own worst public relations enemy, needlessly keeping folks out, and it's likely he won't be fully appreciated until he's standing on the stage in Springfield, Mass., five years after he retires.
Maybe Kevin Garnett will be around for a while, shoving, nudging, yammering and leaving it all on the court for seasons to come. Then again, maybe he's down to short games, a grand old man already headed soon to his own personal Gran Torino.
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