- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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In a series in which gaudy point totals were the norm -- from Rajon Rondo's postseason career-high 30 points and Carmelo Anthony's 42-point outburst in Game 2 to Ray Allen and Paul Pierce pairing up for 70 points in Game 3 -- Kevin Garnett's 26-point effort for the Boston Celtics in Sunday's Game 4 triumph over the New York Knicks seemed somewhat pedestrian.
Look closer and you'll find what may be Garnett's most remarkable offensive game in a Celtics uniform.
After overcoming early foul trouble, Garnett scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half. The last time he scored 20 points in a half was in the first two quarters of a regular-season game against the Detroit Pistons back on March 5, 2008.
You'd have to go back to May 19, 2004, to find the last time Garnett, then a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, scored 20 points in one half of a playoff game. That night, he scored 23 of his 32 points in the second half of a Game 7 win over the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference semifinals.
That was Garnett's MVP season, which should give you an idea of the level Garnett is playing at right now, even if he blends into the scenery on the Celtics at times.
"People forget him," Jeff Green said after Sunday's win with a hint of incredulousness. "The guy can freakin' score. He's been doing it his whole career."
Indeed, with 23,323 career points, Garnett ranks 20th on the NBA's all-time scoring list. He's already left the likes of Bird and Baylor in his wake. So a 26-point effort, a scoring mark he's reached 232 times during regular-season games during his career, shouldn't be all that noteworthy, right?
It is and here's why: Nearing his 35th birthday (May 19), Garnett is playing like he's turned back the clock this postseason.
Garnett is averaging 15.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists through four postseason games, all healthy bumps over his regular-season stat line (14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists). Not only did Garnett produce a monster second half to help fend off the Knicks in Game 4 on Sunday, he hit his first go-ahead postseason bucket of the Big Three era to lift Boston to victory in Game 2.
All this while maintaing a playoff-best 92.3 defensive rating (points per 100 possessions), which is way ahead of the pack. Entering Monday's action, Miami's Dwyane Wade (95.7), Atlanta's Josh Smith (95.8), San Antonio's Tim Duncan (95.9) and Indiana's Paul George (96.7) were all in his rearview mirror.
But you expect that sort of defense from Garnett. It's the offense that's raised eyebrows.
"He's so known for the passion that he brings to the game and the defensive intensity, but if you leave him open he's going to knock down that shot and you saw that [Sunday]," Green said. "[Rajon] Rondo did a great job of penetrating and finding him, and, like Kevin always does, he made big plays for us."
From the very start of the season, Celtics coach Doc Rivers has maintained that no player is more important to Boston's title hopes than Garnett. You can make the case for any of the "big four," particularly Rondo with the way he's played lately and given how much his exploits are tied to setting up Garnett's offense, but it's hard to imagine Boston making it very far without a healthy Garnett anchoring the defense.
Barring the Philadelphia 76ers embarking on an unprecedented comeback, the Celtics will travel to Miami next week to open the conference semifinals. Boston's typical philosophy has been to let the opposing superstars get theirs (at least to a certain degree) and challenge the supporting cast to win the game.
That means while much of the focus will be on how Boston will defend Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, it may well be Garnett's matchup with Chris Bosh that decides how the series plays out. And it will be important at both ends of the court, particularly given Miami's overall lack of size.
Garnett needs to keep his foot on the offensive gas pedal moving to the next round. This season against the Heat he averaged 16.5 points on 54.3 percent shooting over four games. The 66 total points were his second highest total against any opponent (behind only the 68 he scored against the Knicks in three regular-season games).
Rivers implored Garnett to be selfish on Sunday. When he missed four straight shots, three of which came near the rim, Rivers told him to keep shooting. Garnett ended up hitting a pair of pick-and-pop jumpers from Rondo to seal the game late.
A year ago, when Boston faced James in the conference semifinals, the Celtics stunned the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers thanks in large part to Garnett being the most aggressive offensive player on the floor (at the expense of Antawn Jamison).
Garnett's stat line doesn't have to leap off the page next round, his best work is often quite subtle, as he proved with Sunday's effort. But his overall game might determine whether Boston's journey ends like it did in 2009 in the conference semifinals or in the NBA Finals as it has in the two seasons Garnett has been healthy enough to be on the floor in the postseason.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.