|Garnett has lifted his game and the Celtics certainly follow in the Game 3 rout of Philly. (Getty Images)|
PHILADELPHIA -- Derrick Rose left these playoffs long ago, and Dwight Howard never arrived. Kobe Bryant has his hands full with Kevin Durant, one of the sparkling gems of the game for today and for many tomorrows. Another one, Chris Paul, is battling the venerable Spurs.
And yet here is a blast from the past -- a scowling, cursing, motivated old junkyard dog from yesterday in the NBA -- taking over the NBA playoffs of today.
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Kevin Garnett came into the NBA in 1995, 17 years ago, at a time when there was hand-wringing galore about what would happen to the league when Michael Jordan eventually walked away and the knucklehead generation took over. It was Garnett straight out of high school in '95, followed the next year by Bryant from Lower Merion and Allen Iverson from Georgetown, but really, from hip-hop.
The kids, as it turns out, were all right. And in Garnett's case, that kid-turned-grown-man is still lashing out, still thumping his chest and screaming and inflicting all manner of basketball abuse.
Still chasing another championship before it's all over. Chasing it while he still can.
The star of the playoffs isn't Durant or Paul or anyone on the Heat. It isn't one of the up-and-comers, the next generation that's pushing out what, in the mid-1990s, had been the NBA's most pivotal crop of young players, maybe ever. The star of these playoffs is the old agitator, Garnett, who tore a possibly irreparable hole in the Sixers with 27 points and 13 rebounds Wednesday night in a 107-91 beatdown that gave the Celtics a 2-1 series lead.
"We worked so hard to get where we are at," Garnett said quietly, almost in a whisper, in the visiting locker room afterward. "And we got there together."
Worked so hard to get this chance, maybe the last one for these Celtics; maybe the last one for Garnett.
After a lackluster home loss in Game 2, remembered only for Garnett's illegal screen on the Celtics' final possession, Garnett came into the locker room and lit into his teammates. It was a volcanic lecture that had been building for 17 years, one that only Garnett could give.
"After the game, I just came in and said we weren’t going to beat anybody -- that includes JV teams and high school teams -- if we weren't going to play together," Garnett said.
Garnett calls this "Ubuntu," the African tribal philosophy of togetherness. On this night, he also called it "the creed, Celtic basketball." Coming from almost anyone else, this would seem like platitudes or false bravado. But this is who Garnett is. This is what he believes.
"I had to remind the guys, the younger guys and the new guys of how we succeed here," Garnett said.
Days earlier, Garnett had said publicly that he would "die out there if I had to, and that's real talk." And everyone just nodded, shrugged their shoulders, and thought, "Sounds about right."
If your teammate is willing to inhale his last breath right there on the court, how could you not fight over a screen?
Anyone who's been paying attention knows that Garnett is a little off kilter -- a throwback who has been getting by with psychological warfare as much as basketball skills in recent years. But what Garnett has done in these playoffs is nothing short of amazing. In a brutal, lockout-condensed season that has tormented much younger men, Garnett is playing at an MVP level. In Game 3 on Wednesday night, with the Celtics staring at the possibility of facing a 2-1 deficit on the road, Garnett produced his seventh double-double in nine playoff games.
The tribal chief of Ubuntu is averaging 20.3 points and 11 rebounds in the playoffs.
"With a short season, a lockout-shortened season, it was kind of a buildup process for us," Celtics guard Keyon Dooling said. "The younger, athletic teams started a lot faster than us, but we stayed the course, and Kevin was getting his rhythm. He got his legs, he got his rhythm and he's doing a good job of being a post presence. He's not just relying on his jump shot."
That's an analytical way of saying that Garnett, one of the old men of the playoffs, is carrying the Celtics toward a realistic shot at the second championship of the Big Three era.
"We ran into a Celtics team that had a real sense of purpose about them tonight," Sixers coach Doug Collins said.
It started with a serious Rajon Rondo at shootaround Wednesday, Doc Rivers said, and finished with Garnett not giving an inch on either end of the floor. He mauled Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Elton Brand and whoever else Collins threw at him. He played like someone who had surveyed the landscape around him and realized that now is the time to push -- his game elevated and his combustion accelerated by the misfortunes of others.
"He's always been there on defense, and the last few years the offense hasn't been there," the Sixers' Elton Brand said. "But it's there now. ... He's always seemed fueled, to play hard and play well. But he's definitely making it tough for us to defend him."
Rose is long gone from these playoffs, and Howard never got here. Now the Heat, who got past the Celtics last spring, face an identity crisis without injured Chris Bosh, who may turn out to have been the glue that was keeping LeBron James and Dwyane Wade connected.
Garnett smells blood. And with the instincts of a shark, he's attacking -- bringing everything he's got, all the fury and smarts and old-man tricks gained over all these years in the post-Jordan NBA.
The kids were all right back then, when Garnett came into the league with so much bravado, not knowing what he didn't know. And now the kids are at Garnett's mercy, so many years later. The old champion is still barking. His teeth -- and his game -- are sharper than ever.