- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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BOSTON -- You could hear them if you walked around the city long enough. Concerned whispers. Almost like cries for help.
Boston. Easter weekend. The Celtics had lost two games. In a row. At home.
Every win (even the moral victories) seemed to come connected to an embarrassing loss. Beat Dallas, then lose to Utah. Blow out the Nuggets, get spanked by the Thunder and the Spurs.
Ageism -- they're too old! -- reared its ugly but suddenly plausible head in Boston. Still, the April 2 game, Good Friday, loomed against the Rockets, and surely it would be the one that pulled the city out of its season-long paranoia that the apocalypse of an NBA 401(k) plan was in full old jack swing.
They lost it.
The city has been buzzing -- and not in a good way -- about the condition of its basketball team. To the whisperers, the green that once represented the luck of the Celtics is now the color of aged copper. Someone in the Apple Store on Boylston Street referred to it as "vomit green." The Celts' record against the three teams in the East (Orlando, Cleveland, Atlanta) that they'll have to get through to return to the promised land: 3-9. Through the first five of a six-game, two-week homestand at the end of March and the beginning of April, they won the first two and lost the next three.
Then the King (James) and the new kings of the East (the Cavs) came through on Easter and erased a 22-point second-half Boston lead and took the lead in the fourth. The Celtics eventually won, despite LeBron playing like "God disguised as Michael Jordan" (Larry Bird's description of MJ after a 1986 playoff game). But the whispers just got louder.
And almost all of them were about one person: Kevin Garnett.
In X Squared, the sneaker boutique on Newbury Street, employees and shoppers chopped it up about whether the KG of old (no pun intended) would ever be seen again. In Champions inside the Marriott during the broadcasts of the Final Four games, more of the same. A lot more of it. In Commonwealth Park, people out by the hundreds, running, taking casual strolls, holding hands, walking dogs, enjoying a 70-degree morning, his initials could be heard. In Massimino's Cucina Italiana on Endicott Street, he was a part of the neighborhood anxiety, along with Mike Lowell's future, Big Papi's bat and Josh Beckett's pitching.
Even people close to the team, writers who see him every day, say it's evident in his personality, that something is not the same with Garnett. None of them can put a finger on it. ("No one can," I was told.) They say the same applies to the rest of the team, but KG is where the focus is. Many Bostonians feel that Paul Pierce is the team's best player, but they know Garnett is the reason they copped that ring two years ago.
"Good luck trying to talk to him," I was told.
"He won't speak to anyone before the games. You might be able to get something afterwards, but nothing solo. He isn't as open with the media as he used to be," I was told.
It's as if, they told me, the game is no longer fun for him, and it's affecting everyone else.
So the whispers are there. Some are about his age: He's 32, finishing up his 15th season in the league. Some are about his health: He hyperextended his right knee earlier this year, missed the playoffs (same knee) last season. Others, more disturbing, are about the one thing Garnett has always had over damn near every player in the NBA: his confidence.
It's fading, say the whispers.
I needed to not believe that. Not KG. But the signs are there. Could "The Kid" be gone?
It's clear that he hasn't recovered 100 percent from his knee injury, that he still can't do with ease the things that got him 20/10s for 11 years in a row, along with an MVP (2003-04 with the Timberwolves) and a defensive player of the year award ('07-08 with the Celtics). And the championship ring. Even Michael Wilbon questioned at halftime of a game whether KG could "do something more than drag that leg."
So do we think of him now the way we view Tim Duncan? Will we ever see the KG we once loved again?
Should I still believe in Kevin Garnett?
Flash forward to this week, two games left in the regular season. The Bulls on Tuesday; home against Milwaukee on Wednesday. A practice at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. On the court farthest from the entrance, Garnett shoots jumpers with two spotters.
Doc Rivers is watching.
"[Kevin] is 100 percent at who he is," his coach says. "I think we are still looking for Kevin at [age] 28, and, well, you're not going to see that. What people miss when it comes to Kevin is, one, he's less than a year out from surgery that usually takes a second year [to fully recover]; and two, I put him down to 29 minutes a game this season. I don't care who it is. If I take LeBron James' playing time down [from 40 minutes] to 29 to 30 minutes, his numbers are not going to be the same."
Garnett's production, Doc says, is roughly the same as it ever was if you figure in his numbers next to his playing time.
"Is he the same Kevin as three years ago, two years ago? Probably not," he says. "But we don't need him to be. I'm not that concerned about Kevin at all."
But Rivers knows the whispers are out there, not only about Garnett but about the rest of the team, too.
Doc puts it this way: "Do [the players] hear it? They have to hear it. As long as they don't believe it. We are old. We are an old basketball team. We're not a very athletic basketball team. But we are a skilled basketball team, a smart basketball team."
When I ask him how the players react to the talk, Rivers' response sums up why anyone should think twice before giving up on this team: "They don't give a s---."
I came here specifically to ask Garnett about this. Not just whether he hears the whispers, but whether they're justified. I came here to ask him point-blank: Can we still believe in him?
As long as I've known KG -- and I've known him since before the days when he was driving through the streets of Chicago in his first Audi, the one with license plates that read "KG PICK 5" -- he has been honest and fair, to the point of being brutal. Not just brutally honest to and about others, but to and about himself, too.
He still is.
"I'm going to be honest with you," Garnett says. "I'm like any other player that's banged up. With the players we have on this team, my role is diversified. I don't have to have 25 [points] and 15 [rebounds] a night. You know what I'm saying? I'm not even playing those types of minutes."
As I watch him, he seems the same. Walking slower, maybe, but so am I, and not so slow that "Sanford and Son" should be his theme music. I take everything I've heard into consideration. Things I heard while in Boston, things Rivers said. And the things KG's teammate, Tony Allen, just told me. Seems Garnett has been dunking on Allen during practice like he isn't his teammate.
Allen says KG is still "the Ticket."
"Ain't nothing changed," he says.
I still believe.
"Coming off this injury has been sort of psychological," Garnett says. "Mentally, it's been one of the hardest years I've ever encountered. But for the most part, I've played. I've played hard and I've been enduring, playing on one leg and still being productive. They told me it's going to be a year of transformation, so I'm dealing with it. I'm good with it."
There is still the other matter, the most disturbing of the whispers. His confidence. I'd heard that Rivers had asked him to be less unselfish, that he needed Kevin to take over games, to be a bigger presence on the offensive end the way he used to. In Boston at Abe & Louie's on Boylston Street, I'd heard a rumor that KG and Pierce and Allen had been there after the loss to Houston for a Big Three leaders-only dinner, discussing what needed to be discussed, saying to one another what needed to be said. (The rumor wasn't entirely true. The Big Three did have a private dinner together after the Rockets' loss, but not at Abe & Louie's.)
But I'd seen something, too, during the Celtics' spiral against the Cavs on Easter. In the middle of hundreds of Celtics fans screaming at multiple flat screens in a handful of different hot spots that afternoon, I saw all I needed to see. He didn't dominate the way he used to; LeBron was doing what KG used to do. But I saw it. I saw KG come back. Not necessarily with points, rebounds or defense, but with his mouth. And it helped me maintain belief.
LeBron single-handedly made the Celtics' lead evaporate, but KG refused to let "the best player on the planet" (as LeBron, it seems, is now being universally referenced) get comfortable. He was back to talking to himself, talking to anyone in his way, cursing again at a Tarantino-like pace. It was an I'm-not-backing-down-even-in-the-face-of-possible-embarrassment kind of coming back. A "Why won't he shut the #$%@ up?" kind of coming back.
As Boston pulled out the ugly, far-from-comfortable win, KG -- in his beautiful, Reggie Miller-like mindset -- gave LeBron and crew the salute. Thanks for coming out, God bless, good night.
No one whose confidence is in question does that. Not even if he's lying to himself.
When I ask Garnett about that in Chicago, he smiles.
"You know what?" he says. "It's just a grinding season, that's all. Ups and downs, peaks and valleys. Some nights, my body's feeling good; other nights, I'm just like anybody else, I'm hurting. But unless Doc comes over here with the big ruler to shut me down, then I'm out here grinding. Like always."
I ask: "So you haven't lost your confidence?"
"Absolutely not. You just have to understand that a lot of people are comparing what I'm doing [now] to what I've done up to this point. Me? I never lose or lost sight of myself and never doubted myself."
So here's what I've learned: With KG, the physicality of what he can or can't do shouldn't be the greater concern. The greater concern is whether he can transfer his ability to lead into ways that don't require a 20/10 every night. That should be the expectation going forward. His own expectation, as well as the expectations of all of us.
In the Cask'n Flagon just outside Fenway Park during the Red Sox/Yankees season opener, a few hours after the Easter Sunday win over the Cavaliers, some of the bar talk -- even among the women wearing "I Only Kiss Red Sox Fans" T-shirts -- is about the state of the Celtics. More than once, especially as the Sox fell behind 5-1, Garnett's name came up.
"What's wrong with Josh Beckett is becoming harder to figure out than whatever is wrong with Garnett," one person said.
I asked a table of fans if they thought the old Josh Beckett would ever return, and if the old Kevin Garnett would ever return. Most said they weren't sure about Beckett. Most said they still have faith in Garnett.
"Once the playoffs start " one said.
A week later, I leave the Moody Bible Institute knowing -- believing -- that the KG who once was the hardest matchup in the game might not be back this season. But I also believe the KG we'll see in the next few weeks is going to be a problem at some point. For Miami. For Atlanta. Or for Orlando. Or for Cleveland.
A different KG will emerge. As one of the fans in X Squared said, "When we need KG, he'll show up. He always does. So come playoff time "
Yeah come playoff time.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
He might be the greatest unknown in the NBA playoffs right now. Is Kevin Garnett too old? Too lame? No longer so sure of himself? One writer's faith in 'The Kid' is being tested.