Garnett traveled tough road to first Finals

Johnny Ludden

LOS ANGELES – He's an MVP, an 11-time All-Star, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, a member of the 20,000-point club, and, yet, before a week ago, Kevin Garnett was, perhaps, also the NBA's most tortured soul. He would howl, pound his chest, snarl at his opponents. But by the first few days of May he had usually disappeared into his cloud of chalk.

The playoffs almost always came and went with KG making only a brief appearance, if he had made one at all. The NBA Finals? A dream. Nothing more. Garnett watched his rival, Tim Duncan, become a four-time champion. Shaquille O'Neal, too. Even Dirk Nowitzki could say he at least reached the Finals. KG was the King of One and Done. When he finally reached the Western Conference finals in 2004, he didn't have enough left in the tank to take the last step.

Four years later, Garnett now finds himself within two victories of a championship, and it's safe to say no one needed this stage more. Kobe Bryant already has his three rings. Sweet-shooting Ray Allen always talks a good game, but he also doesn't seem to be one who would have lost sleep if his career had ended without a single trip to the Finals. Even Paul Pierce hasn't carried as heavy a burden as Garnett has for all these years.

"It's definitely been a journey," Garnett said.

Having left behind the brutal winters and short seasons of Minnesota, Garnett has found a home among these Boston Celtics that, in the words of his good friend Sam Cassell, "allows him to be himself." What that means is Garnett is free to better the Celtics as needed. All season, he has anchored the NBA's best defense, protecting the rim, clogging the lane, even chasing guards out to the perimeter. He can score, but he doesn't have to be the scorer every night like he was with the Timberwolves, and that says something about him, too.

After all, isn't the most complete Celtic also the NBA's ultimate complementary player?

Not everyone will take that as a compliment, but Garnett should. He is closer to Scottie Pippen than Shaq, albeit without the championship pedigree of either. There's no shame in that. Win or lose, KG has already validated his career by reaching these Finals.

The Hall of Fame also will find a place for KG among its ranks. Garnett lived with Kevin McHale as his GM for more than a decade, and that alone should merit his entrance. Even if Garnett doesn't get the two victories he needs in the Finals, there are more than a few all-time greats who have ended their careers without a championship. Just ask Charles Barkley.

But if the Celtics lose Thursday like they did Tuesday? With Garnett again unable to find the bottom of the basket? Then the spotlight's glare will again find the green jersey of No. 5.

Garnett is shooting only a little better than 35 percent in the Finals' first three games. He missed 15 of 21 shots in Game 3, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted, "We've got to get Kevin going, clearly." Rivers also knows he doesn't need to tell Garnett this.

"I've always said I'm my biggest critic," Garnett said.

KG's strength is also his curse. Only Bryant might burn hotter among current players, but Garnett's fire also has its limit. The San Antonio Spurs used to think Garnett would work himself into so much of a frenzy for his battles with the Duncan that he would first lose focus and then, sometimes, the game. In one memorable battle six years ago, Garnett walked up to Duncan and started cursing him. Standing toe to toe, Duncan looked into KG's eyes and laughed.

"You're tripping, man," Duncan said. They were both ejected. The Spurs went on to beat Minnesota by 30 points.

Garnett's teammates, too, have seen the wildness in his eyes. P.J. Brown calls KG the hardest-working player he's ever been around, and that's saying something considering Brown also has been around Alonzo Mourning.

"His practice habits, man, are unmatched," Brown said. "KG doesn't take breaks. If I'm subbing for him, we have to make him come off the floor. Doc will say, 'P.J. get him' because he doesn't want to do it. He's making me the bad guy.

"KG's looking at me with that crazy look, like 'I'll tell you when I'm getting off the floor."

Garnett has learned to better harness his fury over the years, though Rivers still has to occasionally counsel his star to rein in his emotions. That's why Rivers sees little point in telling Garnett he needs to be more aggressive even as coach and player both agree the team would benefit from him taking the ball to the rim more frequently.

"I want him to be aggressive," Rivers said, "but I don't want him to be faster."

Many of the shots Garnett missed on Tuesday are the same kind he's often made. Never a traditional post player, his game often begins 18 feet from the basket. That's one reason why, unlike Shaq and Duncan, he has lacked the ability to take over a playoff series.

Cassell was Minnesota's starting point guard four years ago when Garnett made his only previous trip past the first round. The Timberwolves met the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals, but by then Cassell was injured and unable to play. So Garnett assumed many of the point-guard duties.

"He wore himself down by doing so many things that was supposed to be my job," Cassell said, "that he just couldn't do it anymore."

Garnett doesn't have that same problem with the Celtics. His versatility fits well between Pierce and Allen. Still, he's also vowed to go the rim as hard as ever Thursday. He knows what's riding on the next two games and he knows it begins with him.

"I have to be the player I feel to give my team an edge every night," Garnett said. "I don't really see it as pressure. I see it as every night I have a responsibility to my teammates and to myself, to the people that I represent, the Celtics, the organization, the city."

So KG will take the court again Thursday. He'll howl, pound his chest and unleash his usual torrent of expletives. The second week of June has arrived and he's still standing.

Two more wins and the torture ends.