- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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LOS ANGELES -- Al Horford instinctively stiffened as Kevin Garnett strode purposefully toward him. It was habit, really. Usually when KG is coming for him, it promises to be antagonistic, unnerving and potentially humiliating.
"We've gone at it back and forth," Horford said. "He says stuff you can't print. Mostly, he's letting me know that he runs things, that he's the man.
"That's him. You can't take it to heart. A lot of guys get caught up in it. Yeah, he gets you mad sometimes. He can get the best of you. But you have to deal with it."
Last Friday morning, as KG approached the 24-year old Atlanta Hawks big man, neither Horford nor Garnett was in uniform. They had gathered for a meeting of Eastern Conference All-Stars, and Garnett reached out to Horford, offered his hand and asked him how his trip was.
"He was so nice," Horford marveled. "Completely different. But that's because I'm on his side now."
It truly is that simple: You are either with Kevin Garnett, or against him. In this new-wave NBA, where stars develop relationships as young AAU upstarts and friends from opposing franchises collude to orchestrate dynasties on the fly, KG remains an old-school codger who abhors fraternizing and believes anyone not wearing Celtics green is the enemy -- except during All-Star Weekend.
The league's showcase game on Sunday was predictably heavy on scoring. Garnett, predictably, was the only player who was booed each time he took the floor. It's not just that he's from Boston; the KG-is-a-thug theme apparently has legs.
Garnett was not THE topic in Los Angeles; that would have been Carmelo Anthony, with Blake Griffin and labor unrest also vying for a share of the publicity pie. Yet KG was the source of considerable conversation, undoubtedly due to accumulated barbs from Orlando general manager Otis Smith, Chicago forward Joakim Noah and film director Spike Lee, who have (in order) questioned his toughness, declared he was a "dirty player" and demanded that he "calm the [expletive] down."
Don't count on that happening. Garnett took umbrage with being labeled dirty ("I'm far from dirty. Dirty is hate. I don't use that word"), yet the recent criticism is unlikely to trigger a thoughtful session of self-examination. KG's obsessive intensity is what motivates him and validates him, and it has served both him and the Boston Celtics well. He sees no reason to change, and there is no clamoring from above for him to tone down his rhetoric.
You would surmise the Celtics' brass cringed (or is it cackled?) when their Hall of Fame forward crouched down on all fours and barked like a dog to intimidate the likes of Jerryd Bayless and Jose Calderon. Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers have come to accept their star's biggest strength -- his unbridled intensity -- is also, on occasion, his biggest weakness.
You are awarded a pass when you change the culture of a basketball team the way Garnett did when he came to Boston with his maniacal dedication to the game, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. He walks a fine line when he lathers himself into one of his frenzies, but more times than not, his intimidating nature is destructive to opposing basketball teams, especially young players.
There is no more graphic example than his evisceration of Andray Blatche last spring, when KG shifted into overdrive and harangued the young forward into engaging in toxic verbal warfare. Blatche proved to be painfully overmatched and the Wizards blew an 11-point lead with six minutes to go. The subsequent Boston victory left Blatche near tears and Garnett thumping his chest.
"You just can't take it on," Horford said. "They have such a strong core that when [Garnett starts in], they all rally up around him and each other. It's a good thing -- if you are the Celtics."
KG's methods are nothing new. Paul Pierce surmises his behavior is under scrutiny because the world is overrun with tweeting and texting and e-mail and instant phone pictures, and therefore personalities are magnified.
"Plus, everyone hates the Celtics," Pierce said.
Rivers was among those who initially believed Garnett's antics were the byproduct of manufactured bravado. His opinion changed when he witnessed firsthand Garnett preparing for a basketball game. Teammates learned to stay clear of the expletives, the head banging, the introspective meditation. It mattered not whether it was the Sacramento Kings or the Los Angeles Lakers; in Garnett's mind, they were all win-at-all-costs outings.
"I thought it was an act," Rivers admitted. "I'm thinking, 'No way.' But then he came here and I realized, 'Oh my gosh, this is for real.' And the first thing I thought was, 'This is going to be great for our basketball team.'"
KG's role as an agitator has been amplified this season because opponents are finally pushing back. Though we may never know exactly what Garnett said to Detroit forward Charlie Villanueva, we can ascertain with some certainty it was unseemly. Likewise, his low blow to Channing Frye was gratuitous and cheap, and warranted the ensuing ejection. In a private moment, you wonder if KG would like that one back.
His recent tangle with Jose Juan Barea, after the Dallas guard delivered a hard foul as Garnett drove to the basket, also was an overreaction and prompted his critics to brand him a bully, yet Pierce claims KG went at the 6-foot Barea because "Barea is their spark plug and KG is our spark plug."
Pierce was on the other end of one of KG's tirades in his second year in the league, so he understands the frustration that comes with trying to combat Garnett's ferocious assaults.
"He was my boy," Pierce said. "But I just got tired of him yelling at all our guys. So we got into it for a minute."
That, Pierce discovered, was long enough.
"Kevin does the sorts of things [Dennis] Rodman used to do, that Ron Artest does," Pierce explained. "All the great defenders do little things to get under your skin."
Garnett is unapologetic regarding his approach. He is not concerned with the mindset of others, he explained, only his own preparation.
"KG is unique in that regard," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich offered. "It's important to his game to get himself pumped up, to make sure when he steps on the court that it is the most important thing in his life for 48 minutes. He might be the best at it.
"Maybe it's a function of my age, but I kind of like it. Amusing isn't the right word, because that's too flippant. More like intriguing, or interesting. Any coach would love a player as focused as Kevin."
At this time last season, Garnett did plenty of talking, but as he slogged through rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee, his words often rang hollow. He dragged his leg through the first four months of the season and was not the same player -- or the same enforcer.
"Last year KG was focused on just trying to get on the court," Rivers said. "I thought it robbed him of a lot of his intensity."
Friends and foes alike declared his days of dominance had ended. Garnett took mental notes of those names and faces. He vowed to return at the top of his game this season and has been as reliable and effective as he was when Boston won it all in 2008.
"I'm very strong," Garnett reported. "I had that little setback in Detroit with the calf, but other than that I feel great."
The normally reclusive Garnett sat prominently in the front row of the Staples Center on Saturday night in his ruby red sweater, regaling his fellow NBA All-Stars with gyrations, smack talk and belly laughs.
"He's one of the funniest guys in the league," Shaquille O'Neal declared.
Garnett said it was "more than a pleasure" to hang in L.A. with Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Rivers because for so many seasons, he came as the lone Minnesota Timberwolf. He logged a game-low seven and a half minutes on All-Star Sunday, instructing Rivers to play the "young fellas."
"I had a blast, man," he said, grinning.
As he has done each All-Star year, Garnett spent time chatting with teammates in ways that contradict his normal modus operandi.
"It's my only chance to play with these guys," he said. "It's a chance to relax and enjoy each other.
"But afterward? Watch out."
The next meeting Al Horford has with Kevin Garnett will be April 1 in Atlanta. Boston's alpha dog will be in uniform, and he again will be coming for the young Hawks forward. Only this time, it won't be to shake his hand.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
Kevin Garnett's not toning down anything, which is how the Celtics want it.