PHILADELPHIA - The most accomplished “rookie” in NBA history made his spring debut Saturday night in the City of Brotherly Love and suddenly the Brooklyn Nets look like a dangerous playoff team.
Kevin Garnett, aka Big Ticket, a veteran of 19 seasons, returned after missing 19 games with back spasms only to learn he had been relegated to the status of rookie.
“I think the guys are excited," coach Jason Kidd said of Garnett’s return before the Nets beat the Sixers 105-101 in Wells Fargo Center.
“Some of them have maybe mentioned him as being a rookie. They’re happy to see the rookie back."
KG clearly was happy to be back.
The 37-year-old rookie popped off the bench when introduced with the starting five, marking the first time he’s played since Feb. 27, when his back went whack in a 112-89 win over the Nuggets in Denver.
KG had never suffered from back spasms and dealing with this injury was a brave new world of hurt.
He tried to come back on March 10 against the Toronto Raptors but was scratched just before tip-off, his face twisted in pain.
We saw a very different KG Saturday night. On the pregame layup line he looked like vintage KG, slapping teammates’ hands, his bald dome glistening with sweat, a dialed looked in the eye.
Garnett won the opening tip and scored four points on 2-of-2 shooting with one rebound before leaving with 7:45 left in the first quarter.
He finished with 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, four rebounds, one steal, one assist, one blocked shot and set several excellent picks in 13 minutes and 12 seconds of play; the rookie moved into 14th place on the NBA career scoring list with 25,614 points.
He hadn’t looked this excited since visiting the Chelsea Football Club on the team’s London trip in mid-January. The Nets have never looked more potent.
"The guys have been playing unbelievable," said Garnett. "I just didn't want to come in here and knock off any rhythm. But I felt good and I felt solid. A couple of plays, I had to blow the cobwebs off (remove ‘some of the plays’). I felt like a first-year rookie. I was not nervous, but I was anxious to get out there."
The Nets, who improved to 42-34 by winning for the 31st time in the last 44 games, have gotten healthy at the right time, and with KG’s return, have upped the expectations for playoff success.
The Nets (who lost center Brook Lopez with a season-ending broken bone in his foot on Dec. 20) haven’t been at full strength since late-February, when KG’s back went into spasm.
KG and Co. have six games left to solidify rotations and reintegrate their 6-11, 253-pound power forward/center into the lineup.
From the get-go Kidd’s intent was to have veterans Garnett and Paul Pierce rested and healthy for the playoffs. KG looked like he found the fountain of youth. “He’s so fresh and so ready to help us make a run," said Mason Plumlee.
And the injury to KG could turn out to benefit this team in the upcoming playoffs. It allowed players such as Mason Plumlee (16 points on 8-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds) to gain experience, and it boosted the team’s confidence.
The Nets went 14-5 without KG, who frequently talked to teammates during his recovery.
“He loves to talk, so this was right up his alley, to be able to talk with the guys, let them know what he sees, but also, I think, they’re encouraged they can do it without him on the floor,’’ said Kidd, who refused to put KG back in in the final seconds after the Sixers had sliced a 21-point deficit to 96-95 before the Nets held on.
“For him coming back, [for them] not to exhale and continue to keep doing what the guys have done without him, but adding him to the fold to make us better."
KG was averaging career lows in points (6.7), rebounds (6.7) and minutes played (20.8) as Kidd refused to waiver from his plan to have the undisputed leader of this team fresh for the playoffs.
For those that question if the Nets are better with KG, consider this:
Garnett leads the team in defensive rating and ranks first in the NBA in defensive rebound rate. The Nets ranked last in the league in defensive rebound rate.
They also are a better defensive team, allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor. Without KG the Nets allowed 106 points per 100 possessions.
“He’s competitive like no other,’’ said Kidd. “And he’s so unselfish. It’s about team.
“His stat line might not show the numbers that we all have seen in the past when he was younger, but he’s the glue of this team. He’s helped us to where we are today."