HOUSTON – Kevin Garnett leaned over the scorer’s table, clapped his hands together and out burst that familiar cloud of chalk. As the dust settled into the air, Garnett turned to walk onto the court. The fierceness in his eyes told everyone all they needed to know.
The streak was done.
Garnett makes the same entrance every night, and Tuesday was no different. He pounded his heart three times with his right fist then pounded the Houston Rockets. His Boston Celtics would leave with a 94-74 victory, again solidifying their standing as this season’s most dominant team, and when Garnett was asked whether it felt special to hand the Rockets their first loss after 22 games and 49 days, he had this to say:
Garnett doesn’t need to use the NBA’s second-longest win streak as fuel. He carries the same slow-burning fire to the court nearly every game. Nor does he need the words of his former employer as motivation.
Garnett’s problem is that he doesn’t have an off button, and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor should know that better than most. For years, the Timberwolves tried to cut back Garnett’s playing time only to watch him punch in for another 39-minute night. During a six-season stretch he missed only three games.
Yet on Tuesday Taylor told reporters in Minnesota that Garnett “tanked it” when he sat out last season’s final five games to go to California to get his sore right knee checked. Team officials publicly supported Garnett’s decision at the time it was announced.
After Tuesday’s game, Garnett called Taylor’s comments “nonsense” in an on-court interview with TNT. Speaking to reporters 40 minutes later in the locker room, he again declined to criticize Taylor, instead thanking him for the opportunity to “fulfill my dream.”
“Glen Taylor was good to me while I was a Timberwolf and I’m a Boston Celtic now,” Garnett said. “I’m not going to be going back and forth saying tasteless things. That’s not my character. I’ll let him speak if he wants to.
“I have nothing to do with the Minnesota Timberwolves. That’s in my past. I’m in a new chapter in my life.”
Garnett hopes to author a happier ending to this one. Since Minnesota traded him to Boston, Garnett has teamed with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to lead the Celtics to a league-best 54-13 record. With Allen sidelined by a heel injury, Boston rallied from 22 points down to beat the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. One night later, Allen again watched as the Celtics held the Rockets to 34 points on 33.3 percent shooting in the second half.
“I’ve never seen defense like that,” Rockets guard Tracy McGrady said after being limited to eight points. “I mean if they play defense like that, night in and night out, the NBA is in trouble.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dispensed similar praise. Assistant coach Tom Thibodeau has substantially upgraded the Celtics’ defense, but Garnett makes the system work. On Tuesday, he was everywhere, as usual, trading elbows inside with Rockets forward Luis Scola then jumping out to the perimeter to hound Houston’s guards.
“He led the charge,” Pierce said.
“When Rondo spread off I could see it in their faces,” Garnett said. “From that point on, right then and there, I knew they didn’t really want pressure.”
With the first-place teams from each conference squaring off in front of a national TV audience, as well as the largest Toyota Center crowd ever, the tension was thick. On the final play of the first half, Scola elbowed Garnett in the head while trying to heave the ball down court. Scola later received a flagrant foul for cracking Celtics guard Tony Allen to the floor.
“I didn’t think we handled that too well, honestly,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought that’s what sped us up. I thought Rondo wanted to attack Rafer and I told them at halftime, ‘It’s the scoreboard guys. It’s not individual. We just have to let all that other stuff go.’ ”
Garnett has always had trouble letting anything go. His competitiveness can work against him, something the Spurs realized when he sometimes burned out in his heated battles with Tim Duncan. Rivers still talks to Garnett about realizing when to rein in his emotions.
But Garnett simply isn’t built that way. During All-Star Weekend he attended the Rookie-Sophomore Game to support Rondo, but looked more irritated than entertained while sitting in his courtside chair. In what was little more than a free-flowing dunk contest, Garnett chewed on Rondo for not getting back quick enough on defense.
When the Celtics reported to Boston 30 days before the start of training camp for informal workouts, the team needed all of one hour, Rivers said, to realize the depth of Garnett’s intensity.
“After the workouts, he stayed on the court for another hour and a half working, then he went and lifted, then he came back that night,” Rivers said. “You see that before the season and if you’re anybody else then you almost have to (do the same). How can you not?”
That’s what made Taylor’s comments so ridiculous. Garnett was so frustratingly loyal to the Timberwolves that even when the team failed time and again to put an adequate supporting cast around him, he refused to demand a trade. His only goal was to bring an NBA championship to Minnesota, to become a dunking Kirby Puckett.
“Ask anyone in this organization if Kevin tanks anything,” said Celtics guard Sam Cassell, who played with Garnett in Minnesota. “Games? Practices? I wish he did tank a couple of practices.”
Cassell called Taylor’s comments a “personal” shot at Garnett, and he’s right. For if there’s anyone who submarined the Timberwolves, it was Taylor himself. He cost Minnesota three first-round draft picks for signing Joe Smith to an illegal contract. Taylor also has continued to employ GM Kevin McHale even though only once did he put together a team Garnett was capable of lifting out of the first round.
Does Garnett deserve some of the blame for Minnesota’s struggles during his 12 seasons there? Absolutely. But he didn’t quit on the Timberwolves as much as they quit on him. Garnett even balked at a previous trade to Boston last summer. Not until the Celtics acquired Ray Allen did he think they afforded him the best opportunity to win a championship.
So far, it looks like he was right. The Celtics have handled nearly every challenge thrown their way this season. As for concerns that Boston’s two blockbuster trades robbed the roster of depth: On Tuesday, Rivers plucked Leon Powe off his bench and watched him score 21 points.
“It’s satisfying to know that I have a team that’s committed toward winning, not just talking about it,” Garnett said. “That doesn’t mean we agree upon everything that’s said. We have big debates and they are heated, at times. …But when we play other teams we usually take it out on them.”
That was the case Tuesday. The Celtics fed Garnett often in the second half and he tormented the Rockets with his size and quickness, totaling 22 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, three steals and a pair of blocks for the game.
With two minutes left and the outcome no longer in doubt, the lane opened for Garnett. He bounced off the court, hung in the air for what seemed like three full seconds then punched in a vicious dunk, also flushing the Rockets’ winning streak.
The crowd gasped. Garnett clenched his fists and growled. His eyes blazed just as bright as they had some 2½ hours earlier.
“KG,” Pierce said, “was hungry for this win.”
No more than usual.