LOS ANGELES – Champagne chilling, a dozen years of frustration weighing on his shoulders, Kevin Garnett stepped to the free-throw line late Sunday. This was his moment. His time. Tucked away in a back room of the Staples Center, buffed and ready to be wheeled out, sat the Lawrence O'Brien trophy. Make both foul shots and the game would be tied, the NBA's ultimate prize would finally be within grasp.
Garnett set his feet, palmed the ball and exhaled.
What happened next explains why these NBA Finals have another 2,500-mile cross-country flight left in them. It also says something about the man who waited the longest to step onto this stage.
As shaky as the young Los Angeles Lakers have looked, KG also twitched Sunday. He spent much of the evening shackled by fouls, he let Pau Gasol take the action to him and, yes, he missed both of those free throws. The night ended without a single cork flying.
"We let it slip right through our hands," Garnett said.
Garnett still figures to get his long-awaited champagne shower. The Lakers have wasted 24-, 19- and 14-point leads in the past two games, and on Sunday they were as lucky as they were resilient. Now they'll be away from the comfort of home.
"It's going to be like coming into the Amazon," Garnett said, "coming into the jungle."
At one time, Garnett was the king of his jungle. Even now, the Boston Celtics still amp up their fans before each game with a video clip of KG screaming. But histrionics alone do not win championships, and in these Finals, the biggest member of Boston's Big Three has also been its Vulnerable One.
Garnett finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds and a pair of steals on Sunday, typically adequate numbers. But Garnett also knew better than to grade himself with a stat sheet. "It was trash," he said of his performance. "I played like garbage."
Garnett stunk on a night when the Celtics were already missing their starting center. With Kendrick Perkins sidelined by a shoulder injury, Garnett became Boston's primary post defender. Gasol rang up two fouls on him in the first quarter, and when Garnett returned midway through the second quarter, he needed all of 13 seconds to pick up No. 3.
Part of Garnett's game is built on intimidation, and he's had Gasol spooked for much of these playoffs. But on Sunday, he spent too much time trying to bully the Lakers' wispy center instead of defending him.
"I really felt like I was selfish and being competitive one-on-one with Pau in the matchup," Garnett said. "Instead of actually talking a breath and taking a step back and playing defense from a more sound and mental standpoint."
Or as Celtics coach Doc Rivers said: "The thing I told Kevin is I thought he was playing extremely hard, but we have to play smart, too."
Garnett's emotion and energy have fueled the Celtics for much of the season, but, on occasion, they also have overwhelmed even Garnett himself. KG admitted as much a day earlier.
"I'm real big on being centered and having my breathing right," he said. "I sound like I'm at Lamaze class or something … but I'm serious man. I cannot – I can't – I am not a player who does well when I come out and I'm not centered."
Garnett wasn't centered when the Celtics needed him most, and that shouldn't come as a complete surprise. After all, Kevin McHale isn't the only reason why Minnesota advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once during Garnett's tenure with the Timberwolves. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, KG also missed a pair of free throws that nearly cost Team USA its semifinal game against Lithuania.
The Celtics don't need Garnett to be clutch as much as they need him to be himself. Not with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen flanking him. Pierce told Garnett just that after Sunday's loss, reminding him that he's far too important to be idling on the bench in foul trouble. Sam Cassell said the same.
"It's on Kevin," Cassell said. "Kevin's smart enough to make the proper reads. Today he made some bad reads defensively and put us in a jam."
Pierce and Cassell expect Garnett to play better on Tuesday. So does Garnett. But Garnett also knows he let a great opportunity slip away on Sunday, and nothing is certain going forward. Rivers doubts Perkins will be able to play in Game 6. Rajon Rondo remained ineffective, missing all but one of his seven shots.
Of greater concern: Allen left the team immediately after Sunday's game because of a health issue with one of his children.
Boston also has allowed the Lakers to run out to substantial leads in each of the past two games. The Celtics' legs could feel even heavier Tuesday considering they will spend most of their off day flying.
"It could come down to a game of mental toughness," Rivers said. "Who fights the fatigue mentally better than the other group."
With Perkins still hurting and Allen possibly distracted? With Gasol's confidence growing? With Pierce having already done all he can do?
As Cassell said: It's on Kevin.