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June 25th, 2008

Kevin Garnett: The Big Ticket

KEVIN GARNETT TRANSFORMED HIS NEW TEAM AND STAMPED HIMSELF AS THE LATEST CELTIC GREAT

Ian Thomsen

 

KEVIN GARNETT MOVED RIGHT IN. He made himself at home, and in little time his ways were defining the Boston Celtics. The way he would hide behind the stanchion of the basket as if it were a tree in the forest, muttering to himself as he tied his shorts tight in the minutes before tip-off. The way he would clap a white cloud of talcum powder in front of Celtics' courtside radio broadcaster Cedric Maxwell, who wore a hospital cap and gown against the fallout.

 

The way he would hug teammate James Posey, rocking back and forth and nodding, before taking the court. The way he would walk to the edge of the floor to demand noise from his new audience. The way he would leap high in front of the rim to intercept an opponent's playful jump shot after the whistle. The way he would accost teammates after they hustled, straddling and pretending to throw punches at second-year forward Leon Powe as he lay flattened after a violent play under the basket. The way he would pay attention from the bench to the final minutes of a blowout win with as much emotion and anxiety as a high school coach.

 

For almost 20 years Boston had been seeking to fill the hole in its lineup previously occupied by Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird. Garnett both restored and reinvented the Celtics' brand, which had grown dormant and irrelevant in the modern NBA. He instantly became a traditional Celtic.

 

"I knew he was a great player," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told The Boston Globe last November, after Boston had won its first seven games. "I had heard he was a great guy to coach. He's exceeded that. Every coach should have a chance to coach a Garnett."

 

Kevin Garnett had played 12 years with the Minnesota Timberwolves as a prototype for his generation: Not only did he set a standard for those who would join the NBA straight out of high school, but he also was a role model for big men who aspired to emulate his fluid perimeter game. The 6' 11" Garnett could play old school out of the post like his NBA forefathers; but the league MVP of 2003-04 was more at home shooting from the edges, handling the ball in the open court and guarding every corner of the defensive floor, like a power forward with the quickness and sensibility of a lockdown shooting guard.

 

His loyalty to the Timberwolves went unquestioned: Amid long-standing rumors to the contrary, he never would demand a trade out of Minnesota. Only when the Timberwolves decided to trade him last year was Garnett—like soon-to-be teammates Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—given a late-in-life opportunity to reach the NBA Finals. At 32 he had reinvented himself.

 

In no time the retro trim of green on the home whites looked fashionable on the broad shoulders of Garnett. His transformation of the Celtics was complete and unmistakable: an NBA-record 42-game improvement to become the league's winningest team, with 66 victories in 2007-08; the revolutionary makeover of a score-first offensive team into the league's dominant defense; and, of course, a 17th championship banner earned at the expense of the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

 

The wholehearted commitment of Garnett's marriage to the Celtics' tradition is even more amazing when set against the backstory of his acquisition. Exactly one year before he was embracing the championship trophy with his teammates, Garnett had declared publicly that he wanted nothing to do with Boston.

 

It's all part of the legend that the Celtics entered the 2007 off-season hoping to turn the second-worst record in the league (24 wins) into the No. 1 or 2 pick in the draft, netting them a potential franchise star in Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Their ensuing free fall in the lottery to the No. 5 pick turned out to be a piece of fortune for a franchise that had celebrated little good luck over the previous 20 years: It forced general manager Danny Ainge to package the pick in a draft-day trade to Seattle for Allen, which not only persuaded Pierce to drop his anticipated demand to be traded but also convinced Garnett to view the Celtics as a team with championship potential.

 

As possible deals with the Lakers, Suns, Warriors, Mavericks, Bulls and Knicks collapsed over the following weeks, Garnett would grow more and more intrigued by the Celtics. "The whole situation changed for me," he says. "I didn't speak publicly. But I tried to be comfortable with seeing myself in a Celtics jersey."

 

It was a frenetic, promising and altogether giddy summer for a Boston franchise hungry to renew the hunt for championships. Years from now Celtics fans will be sharing the story of that day in Los Angeles when Garnett ran into Pierce during a pickup game at UCLA. As the two chatted, Pierce said nothing to KG about the possibility of becoming teammates. "He didn't even bring it up," says Garnett, confused by Pierce's apparent lack of enthusiasm.

 

The misunderstanding demonstrates how badly the Celtics needed a savior like Garnett: Pierce was oblivious to the rumors of a trade because he had been let down too many times over the years by too many false reports of stars coming to his rescue in Boston. "I never get caught up in that stuff, it happens every year," Pierce would explain. "It disappoints you after you hear all of these big rumors and then it never happens." So his eyes rolled at the gossip of KG's joining the Celtics. "I just thought there was no possible way," said Pierce, "and left it at that."

 

Unbeknownst to Pierce, Ainge was working hard to secure a Garnett trade with his friend and former Celtics teammate Timberwolves VP Kevin McHale. In late July, Ainge flew to California for a one-on-one lunch in Garnett's Malibu backyard. It was one of those beautiful L.A. afternoons, and for 90 minutes Ainge and Garnett discussed—with the Timberwolves' authorization—the terms of KG's future in Boston and how he would fit in with the Celtics. Both sides agreed to the general terms of his salary: Including his $56 million extension and his existing $49 million salary over the next two years (enhanced by a 15% trade kicker), Garnett would earn $105 million over five seasons in Boston. But they still had to deal with the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. "This was the first sign-and-trade extension in the history of the NBA," says Garnett's agent, Andy Miller, who with Ainge was forced to make calls to the players' association and league office to check the legalities of their negotiations. The number of players required by Minnesota in exchange for Garnett's salary, as well as the pressure on the Timberwolves to leverage the maximum deal for their franchise star, created layer upon layer of aggravation for all parties involved.

 

The trade was finalized over the cellphone of Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck on the beach near his summer home on Martha's Vineyard, where he had the last of five conversations with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who was seeking to unload Garnett's contract and rebuild with a younger, cheaper team. The Celtics committed the biggest trade in NBA history for one player: In exchange for Garnett they sent Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, two first-round picks and cash to Minnesota.

 

On July 31 Garnett unfolded himself from an SUV wearing an open-necked shirt, a blazer and a Red Sox cap. Word of the trade had spread the day before, resulting in the Celtics' most profitable ticket-sales day in years. In early September he and his new teammates met each morning at Boston's suburban practice facility to begin the informal but intensive workouts that would help them bond as a team.

 

Garnett's main contribution was at the defensive end, where he was Russellesque in shouting commands and guarding every corner of the court. "The more and more we worked on it, the more and more we fell in love with it," said Garnett after the Celtics had finished off the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. "It's our backbone now. We have to play defense, and we have to be connected, all five guys."

 

The Celtics ranked No. 1 in overall field goal defense (a stifling 41.9%) and three-point defense (31.6%), a remarkable duality for a team that squeezes defenders around the ball. The tenets were simple but exhausting: Keep the ball out of the paint, shrink the floor by overloading defenders to the strong side and try to contest every shot. It's hard to remember a game in which Garnett wasn't guarding multiple positions, outworking opponents to tip a rebound to himself or running out to the three-point line to show on a pick-and-roll before sprinting back inside to block a shot. His tireless example spread throughout the team, inspiring everyone from Pierce to Allen to microwave scorer Eddie House to display newfound defensive effort. "Kevin made it possible, let's just be honest," said Rivers. "When your best player buys in defensively and then is as focused in shootarounds as he is, then everybody has to follow. Paul followed, and then everybody came along."

 

It was no surprise that Garnett's numbers declined from his years in Minnesota: He averaged 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 32.8 minutes as Rivers guarded against overworking him. "He's the only one I worry about as far as minutes," said Rivers, who feared that Garnett's hunger for hard work would burn him out. While he may have been less productive individually, he was never more effective as a leader. During an early-season charity dinner in Boston, former Celtic Bill Walton spoke to an audience of season-ticket holders about how Garnett was a special talent capable of elevating the franchise to its championship past. As Walton went on and on, as he tends to do, KG could be seen shaking his head and muttering to Pierce and Allen that he knows this isn't just about him. Garnett knew that jealousy and envy tore Shaq and Kobe apart, and so he was doing all he could to create the opposite dynamic in Boston.

 

There were times that Garnett was criticized for shooting too many jumpers and failing to dominate games by bullying to the basket from the low post. These complaints have followed Garnett throughout his 13-year career, and they come from the fact that he is at heart less of a finisher and more of a creator. He is more like Bill Russell than Wilt Chamberlain; his most important defensive and teamwork qualities cannot be measured statistically. He has always been a complementary star who—until this year—had never played with elite scorers.

 

Garnett brought to the Celtics a sense of faith, that hard work would pay off. With that in mind Rivers arranged, on the eve of the team's preseason training camp in Europe, for his threesome of stars to go on a surprise amphibious Duck Tour of Boston with him. "I told them to meet me at my apartment, and then I had the Duck Boat pull up," said Rivers. "I had them do the exact [championship] parade routes of the Red Sox and the Patriots—we went into the water, the whole thing. That was the time we talked about what it was going to take, about giving yourself up for the team and all of that."

 

As the four rode the old streets and the Charles River while hearing a tour guide describe the rides of the Red Sox, the Patriots and Paul Revere, Rivers encouraged a discussion of how the three must learn to play to a new style if they wanted to fulfill their vision of a parade in June. Rivers knew it wasn't going to be easy. "I had to sell it to them because I had to get them to give up some of the things they've always done," said Rivers.

 

The preseason parade would serve as a vision of things to come. "We knew what our goals were, what we were pushing for and what we were trying to accomplish," says Allen.

"Throughout the season I would say, 'Kevin, remember when we rode the Duck, why we rode the Duck.' We had that feeling of what we want to be."

 

In his own way, unique to modern basketball yet common among Celtics past, Kevin Garnett led his new team to the championship. By season's end he looked as if he had worn the uniform all his life.

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