Kevin Garnett, missing in action? Nope
His aggressive Game 3 performance leads to a strange truth: Pau Gasol was right
The Boston Herald put an APB out on him. His fiercest competition offered a calm, measured, respectful but withering appraisal of his diminishment as a superstar player. His team did not win the battle Tuesday night but might have rediscovered a weapon -- on a night when another, Ray Allen, suffered miserably -- that could help it with the war.
And so it went Tuesday night for Kevin Garnett, another of the city of Boston's embattled lions in winter. Garnett joins David Ortiz and Jason Varitek and Paul Pierce and Allen as city stars whose career mortality is questioned after every bad game, while their hunger, guile and determination are lauded for each victory that appears to stay the hand of time.
After the first two games of the Finals, in which Garnett was such a nonfactor that benching him in favor of Rasheed Wallace seemed a real possibility for coach Doc Rivers, he was alive and active and fierce as the Celtics lost Game 3. Although inexplicably replaced early in the first half by Rivers just as he had begun his revival, Garnett started the game scoring his team's first three baskets, and he finished the night with 25 points. It's as if he was aware that the narrative of the series was trending away from him, so he grabbed a pen and began rewriting it.
All of which suggests problems with the impatience of the storytellers rather than with Garnett himself. Basketball is by nature a game of streaks and momentum, true without the questions of age pressurizing each possession, and more apparent as the game collides with a sporting culture fueled by a fantasy-league attitude toward production and the belief that a high salary should guarantee performance. The bad streak is no longer brooked without dire analysis.
At the Finals level, it is merely Garnett's turn in the cauldron. Great playoff performer Robert Horry suffered through a horrendous shooting postseason (31.9 percent from the floor) in 2003, was let go by the Lakers and wound up contributing to yet another championship, this time in San Antonio.
Two years ago, it was Allen whose career was clearly finished. Reminiscent of his terrible shooting (0-for-13) in Game 3 on Tuesday, he couldn't make a basket throughout the first two rounds of the 2008 playoffs, finally coming to life against Detroit in the conference finals. Allen's legs were supposedly shot. He couldn't get past defenders. He was done.
But against the Lakers in the 2008 Finals, Allen shot .507 from the field (.524 from 3-point territory) and averaged 20.3 points, and the Celtics won a championship.
The only difference between Garnett's troubles early in these Finals and those of Allen in '08 and Horry in '03 was the reaction in the media, reflecting the public's increasing fickleness, to comments by Garnett's rival Pau Gasol. Gasol observed after the Lakers' Game 1 win that Garnett was no longer the player he once was:
" And also on Kevin's part, he's also lost some explosiveness," Gasol told the media. "He's more of a jump shooter now, you could say, comes off the lane. Before, he had a really quick first step and was getting to the lane and was more aggressive then. Time passes, and we all suffer it one way or the other, but he's still a terrific player, a terrific competitor, and he's going to bring everything he's got. You can count on that."
Gasol didn't say anything that should have been deemed even remotely incendiary by anyone -- including Garnett. Garnett is not the same player he once was. Injuries have robbed him of that automatically quick first step. Now, some moves are more effective than others. He does not elevate with the same rocket burst of yesterday. Gasol mentioned all these facts, adding that Garnett is still a dangerous, championship-level player who should not be underestimated.
The result, though, was the initiation of the conversation that suggested Garnett's career is over. There was much to learn from listening to Gasol. Too bad it got reduced to an empty sound bite.
Garnett has always been a curious playoff performer. For many low-post jump shooters -- including greats such as Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone and Robert Parish -- the playoffs often are not conducive to their offensive patterns. Because they are playing against better defenders with officials who are given to allow more physical play, they get pushed farther from the basket, which makes their midrange game less effective. Plus, in a playoff situation, jump shooters are less likely to get to the foul line.
This is particularly evident in Garnett's case. He has found himself facing difficult matchups against the Lakers. He cannot easily shoot over Andrew Bynum or Gasol, and in the first two games of the series, while Gasol dominated, Garnett didn't quite seem to know where to go for his offense.
If Gasol is guilty of anything, it's having the temerity to offer a concise analysis of an opposing player. Garnett is 34. Time forces him to wear a black sleeve brace over one knee. In one of the more important moments of the postseason -- Game 6 versus Orlando -- Garnett engaged in the kind of dangerous, immature sparring with Dwight Howard (in an elimination game, no less) that nearly cost him and his team, the suggestion being that only a player unconfident in his abilities could get roped into such childishness.
Gasol's perceptions of Garnett are especially valuable because, unlike the large majority of Garnett watchers, he actually has to guard and try to score against Garnett. He knows better than anyone whether Garnett is as explosive to the ball as he once was or whether his moves lack the energy of years past. He offered the kind of conversation we say we want from athletes, letting us know what he knows in real time instead of five years into the future (in the broadcast booth or some other uncritical venue) when the moment is long over. Yet he was summarily blistered for it.
And after a Game 3 in which Garnett attacked and returned to being a force, the Gasol observations seem more prescient because Garnett adopted a new strategy to deal with his limitations, forgoing the fallaway jumper as a primary option and relying on his quickness advantage -- exactly what he should have done. In the process, he opened a new front in this series.
Within this two-man Gasol-Garnett battle is a glimpse of what real basketball and public discourse about the game should be about: adjustment, candor and performance. Watching Garnett's roller coaster the past week underscores a contradiction about the media, which lament the protected, canned responses that professional athletes provide in interview sessions but take a thoughtful comment such as the one Gasol gave and reduce it to insipid bulletin-board material.
We can't have it both ways. It's time to grow up.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter.
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