BOSTON (AP)—The players at the end of the Boston bench kept looking over their shoulders to the tunnel to see if Kevin Garnett was coming back out of the locker room.
They didn’t need to worry.
“I wasn’t going to do anything that would to jeopardize my future,” Garnett said after his last-second steal helped the Boston Celtics beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 87-86 on Friday night. “But my philosophy has always been that if I can play, if I can run, if I can move, if I can blink, if I can wake up in the morning, I’m going to play.”
In his first regular-season game against his former team, Garnett poked the ball away from Sebastian Telfair in the final seconds to preserve the victory. The leading vote-getter for next month’s All-Star Game, Garnett finished with 10 points and 16 rebounds despite leaving the game for four minutes late in the fourth quarter because of an abdominal strain.
“It felt like I got sniped from the rafters or something, you know,” Garnett said. “I just had a sharp pain come from my stomach and I just wanted the doctors to look at it. They looked at it and said I was fine, so I came back out.”
The doctor said Garnett could go back in, but the trainer said no, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, holding one thumb up and one thumb down. Eventually, Garnett begged his way back onto the court.
When he did, the Timberwolves had an 86-81 lead with 1:51 left and the ball. They did not score again.
“We were lucky to win,” Rivers said. “It didn’t look like it was going to happen.”
Kendrick Perkins scored on a putback with 16.6 seconds left, finishing with 21 points to help Boston beat a team stocked with a handful of players sent to Minnesota in last summer’s trade for Garnett. Paul Pierce had 19 points and eight assists to help the Celtics bounce back after Wednesday’s loss to Toronto — just their seventh loss in the first 40 games this season.
Telfair scored 18 points, and fellow ex-Celtics Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes had 15 and 13, respectively. Craig Smith, who played at Boston College, had 10 rebounds for the Timberwolves as they missed a chance to extend their season-high two-game winning streak to three.
“I’ve been in the league long enough to know that players who come back are going to be attacking,” Rivers told his players. “They want to show the fans, they want to show the coach and the GM what a mistake they made, and they want to show you, too.”
But Garnett beat his former team, which acquired five players and two draft picks last summer to send him to Boston and help the Celtics turn what had been one of the worst teams in the NBA last year into this year’s best.
As good as the Celtics have been with Garnett, that’s how bad Minnesota has been without him. Adding Antoine Walker to the five other ex-Celtics, the Timberwolves won just five of their first 39 games to fall to the bottom of the NBA standings.
But the Timberwolves of the past week have been a different team. After blowing a last-minute lead against Northwest Division-leading Denver last Saturday, they put together their first winning streak of the season, beating Golden State and Phoenix, the best team in the West.
Gomes scored a career-high 35 points to beat the Warriors, and Jefferson had a career best 39 points to go with 15 rebounds against the Suns.
“We’re trying to learn how to win games like this, and we’re putting ourselves in position to do it,” Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said. “This is a tough one to swallow, but it’s one we will learn from.”
On Friday, the new Timberwolves saw the team they left behind.
Despite having virtually the opposite record as the NBA-leading Celtics— 7-34 against 33-7—the Timberwolves led Boston by six points, 78-72 with four minutes left. They also had the ball and had Garnett in the locker room.
Garnett got back on the court just in time to see Pierce hit a pair of free throws that cut the deficit to 86-83. An offensive rebound and a traveling call against Pierce gave the Timberwolves three chances to extend the lead, but instead Boston cut it to one point on Pierce’s fifth-chance putback with 23.2 seconds left.
When Corey Brewer couldn’t inbound the ball for Minnesota in time, the Celtics got a chance to take the lead. Ray Allen swept around the lane and missed a layup, but Perkins put it back in to give Boston the 87-86 lead.
Tough defense forced Marko Jaric to call timeout on the ensuing inbounds pass, and when he finally got it in the Timberwolves worked it around before Garnett knocked it away from Telfair at midcourt.
Perkins also had three blocked shots. … The Celtics turned the ball over on six straight possessions down the stretch. … Garnett and Jefferson were called for technicals in the first quarter for jawing while waiting for a free throw.