In the moment, 3-pointers by Mickael Pietrus and Paul Pierce were the plays that changed and sealed the game, pushing the Boston Celtics past the Miami Heat, through the final buzzer of a 94-90 Game 5 win and to the verge of a return to the NBA finals. But as has been the case throughout this season, and especially this postseason, the Celtics wouldn't have been there if Kevin Garnett hadn't carried them to the threshold.
Garnett sent the Celtics home with a chance to close out Thursday by turning in another sensational performance — 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks, a steal and swarming, roving, everywhere defense in just under three quarters of play. It was Garnett's third 20-point, 10-rebound effort of the Eastern Conference finals and his ninth in Boston's 18 playoff games, two more than he had in 60 appearances during the regular season.
He's averaging 21.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and a shade under two blocks per game in this five-game run against the Heat, shooting 48.9 percent from the floor and generally acting like the most dominant force in a series that features a Most Valuable Player averaging 32-10-4 on 50 percent shooting. He's been nothing short of amazing.
After the game, ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke — who you might remember as the mic-holder for Rajon Rondo's "complaining and crying" Game 4 haymaker — asked Garnett what fuels him after 17 years in the NBA. The answer was pretty perfectly KG.
"The competition, the naysayers," Garnett began, before raising his head and staring directly into the camera. "The owners who who talk too much.
"You know, the people who don't think a 36, 35-year-old can do what I do," he added. "I take a lot of pride in my craft. I work really hard on my craft every day, and I'm a true professional."
Boy, it seems like FOREVER ago that Atlanta Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. called Garnett "the dirtiest guy in the league" at a nonprofit luncheon, doesn't it?
Like, when I heard Garnett reference that slight — and, more to the point, when I saw his eyes boring a hole through my skull — I was kind of surprised that Garnett was still salty about that, especially after answering Gearon's smack with a dominant 28-point, 14-rebound outing in Boston's Game 6 series-clincher against the Hawks less than one week later. You might remember Garnett kicking off his postgame press conference after the win thusly: "First, I want to say 'thank you' to the Hawks' owner for giving me some extra juices tonight. Just because you have a bunch of money doesn't mean you get to open your mouth."
After consulting my calendar, though, I realized I shouldn't have been; that whole ordeal somehow took place less than a month ago (man, the playoffs can play tricks on you). Beyond that, of course, it was dumb of me to think that there's anything resembling a statute of limitations on something motivating KG. The man's world-renowned for being a pathologically competitive precision engine that runs cleanest when burning pure spite, and when you've got your mind right (though "right" is probably a relative term) there isn't any resource more renewable than perceived slights. Especially when some part of you probably worries there might soon be some truth in the jabs.
As amazing as Garnett has been, as quick and explosive and fearsome as he's looked, we can't just pretend he's not coming up on 51,000 career NBA minutes, that he didn't suffer a major knee injury two years ago, that he hasn't struggled through thigh and hip injuries over the past couple of seasons. I have no doubt that Kevin Garnett is unshakably confident in his own gifts and abilities, but confidence doesn't mean the past hasn't happened. While he's clearly not anywhere close to the finish line that some detractors stretched across Boylston Street for him, a man as smart and in tune with the life of the game as Garnett has to have at least considered the reality that the race can't last forever. Maybe that concept injects some nitrous oxide into the fuel; maybe it adds a little urgency to those rotations, those screens (moving and otherwise) and those cuts.
Garnett has spoken frequently and at length this season about using the "too old" talk running through media members' "pathetic articles" and "lousy analysis" as motivation on the court, to the point where he seems to be responding less to things that many people are actually saying about him and more to an insane funhouse mirror-version of slanders that presently existonly inside the war zone that is Kevin Garnett's headspace. Anyone who is still doubting that a "36, 35-year-old" — actually 36 years and 18 days, if you're counting — can do what he's doing simply isn't paying attention. The version of Kevin Garnett on display this postseason is a marvelous sight to behold. And we have Michael Gearon Jr., and about a million other people, places, things, whispers and dreams to thank for it.