- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The lead story in Wednesday's Union Leader was about the arrival of the Boston Celtics for an exhibition game with the Philadelphia 76ers, with an emphasis on the biggest one of them all -- Shaquille O'Neal.
In size and personality, that is undoubtedly true. Shaq is a presence with a capital P. But the biggest Celtic of them all for the 2010-11 season -- in terms of importance, not sound bites or throwaway lines -- is the same person it was last year, the year before that and the year before that.
His name is Kevin Garnett.
After the Celtics' 93-65 win over the Sixers on Wednesday night, Shaq (eight points) will continue to get the headlines and keep the celebrity/gossip types happy. But if the Celtics are going to make it to where they want to go, they are going to have to do it the way they did it in 2008 and almost did it last season -- with defense. That's where Garnett comes into play.
Or, to be more 2010, that is where a healthy Garnett comes into play.
While coach Doc Rivers is fond of saying that his regular starting five has never lost a playoff series when together, he could amend that to the following: It has never lost a playoff series when Garnett has been healthy.
In Garnett's first season with the Celtics, Boston won 66 games and steamrolled the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and Garnett walked off with the franchise's first defensive player of the year award. He also should have gotten the MVP award that season for the way he transformed the team.
That Garnett might never be seen again. It was, after all, three years ago. But the Garnett of 2010-11 might prove to be a reasonable facsimile, and that has the Celtics quietly hopeful of what lies ahead.
Durability was a hallmark of Garnett's Minnesota years; he was never really hurt. He has been plagued with something in each of his three seasons in Boston, ranging from an abdominal muscle pull in 2007-08 to the right knee woes of the next two seasons.
Last season, he labored through 69 games, averaging 30 minutes a game. (He averaged 32.8 minutes a game in 2007-08.) The emphasis is on the word "labored." He never looked comfortable or confident. He was getting beaten on drives to the basket by the likes of Andray Blatche and getting embarrassingly up-faked by Ersan Ilyasova.
And in his last game of the season, Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Pau Gasol abused him to the point of humiliation. Little wonder he said he did not really enjoy his summer. He must have seen Lakers jerseys in his dreams.
But as a new season starts, so does a rejuvenated Garnett. After a week of practices, word is filtering out that Garnett has regained much of what he lost and missed the past two seasons. And the Celtics need that Garnett to anchor the defense, which is where it all starts and ends for Rivers and the boys.
"He looks great. He's explosive, aggressive; he looks fantastic,'' Rivers said of Garnett before Wednesday's exhibition opener against the 76ers at Verizon Wireless Arena (where the wireless didn't work). Had Rivers attempted to describe Garnett thusly last season, a laugh track would have magically appeared. The hobbled Garnett was not only hurting, but he was lacking what the Brits call "bottle." He just didn't have any confidence.
Asked to compare Garnett now to this time last year, Rivers said, "It's not even close. A lot of it is mental. While he was technically healthy, I don't think he was ever confident in what he could do. We knew that.
"I just think we'll see more out of Kevin in that he'll have more confidence in what he can do. I thought that hurt him as much as his actual health. I think it takes a year to get that confidence back."
Danny Ainge sees the same thing.
"Kevin finished the season last year much better than he started,'' Ainge said. "There's hope he can return to the Kevin of a year before rather than the Kevin of last year. I think he is in a much better place than he was last year. He's moving well. We're not watching on eggshells with every step he takes."
Garnett was in the starting lineup Wednesday night, sharing the paint with the Brobdingnagian Shaq. He seemed to be moving well. He blocked a shot by someone named Trent Plaisted, who started at power forward for the 76ers. The Celtics' defense stifled the offensively challenged Sixers (22 points in the first half). And when Garnett (two points, two rebounds, one assist) took a seat on the bench, the right knee was quickly iced and taped.
"I got my days. I got my days. Some days are better than others,'' Garnett said earlier in the day when asked how he was feeling. "I'm in here, working hard."
Rivers said he is not going to increase Garnett's playing time this season. If anything, with the anticipated development of the second unit, Garnett's time might decrease. The goal, as has been the case since 2007, is to have Garnett healthy for the real season in April, May and, the Celtics hope, June.
"Health is a very big part of why you win,'' Garnett said. "Simple as that."
But for the Celtics, even with all the new names and big bodies, it begins and ends with defense and, by extension, with No. 5. Garnett might be losing face time to the newer Celtics, but as long as he stays healthy, he is not going to be ceding important playing time.
And that's what still matters the most.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.