The alums went down hard, which is exactly what Doc Rivers told his guys to expect.
"The other team attacked," said the Celtics' mentor after his team staggered home with a pretty much undeserved 87-86 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves last night. "I've been in this league too long not to know that when players come back to their old place for the first time, they want to show the fans, they want to show the coach, they want to show the GM he made a mistake, and they want to show you."
The Celtics entered this game with the best record in the NBA (they're now 34-7 at the halfway point). The Wolves entered this game with the league's worst record (they're now 7-35). But if the teams were wearing generic white and black jerseys with no lettering, any neutral observer would have assumed the team with the black jerseys was the one sending its coach to the All-Star Game and the team with the white jerseys was angling for the best lottery position.
For 46 minutes, anyway.
The truth is the Celtics had to pull a Brady to win this game. It all came down to a two-minute drill.
The Celtics trailed, 86-81, with 2:01 left. In those final two minutes, Paul Pierce made two free throws, blocked an Al Jefferson shot, and converted on what was at least a fifth-chance follow- up; the Celtics caused a crucial five-second inbounds violation; Kendrick Perkins had a soft-dunk putback of a blown Ray Allen layup (one of many during a brutal 4-for-18 night) with 16.6 seconds left for the go-ahead basket; and, finally, Kevin Garnett, having reentered the game with 1:51 left after being examined for an abdominal strain, capped a truly amazing defensive possession by knocking the ball away from Sebastian Telfair a few feet from midcourt and then beating the Wolves guard to the ball with a Cowensian flop to put the game away.
If anyone was wondering how Garnett makes his way onto the All-Defensive Team every year, all they need to do is watch what he did in Minnesota's final possession.
Acknowledging that very few big men possess the package of agility and intelligence to make this play, Rivers put it in perspective. "I mean, he went from denial to the top, to helping on the deep with Al [Jefferson], to back out, getting his hands on the ball, and then he beat a guard to the ball and then he beat him to the floor - which is rare. You know, when you think about it, the guard is 6-feet-whatever, he's closer to the floor, he should get the ball first."
And to be out there to make this play, Garnett had to beg his way into the game after being examined for his abdominal problem.
Yeah, I'd say Kevin Garnett is nice to have around.
Now, the team with the best record is going to get matched up against the team with the worst record on occasion. That's inevitable. But this particular confrontation had an unusual plot twist, thanks to The Trade.
For this was the first meeting between the Celtics and Wolves since the transaction of July 31, 2007, when Minnesota general manager Kevin McHale handed over Garnett to his old friend Danny Ainge in exchange for Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Telfair, Gerald Green, and Theo Ratliff, plus a pair of No. 1 draft picks. It's been rather well documented what Garnett has meant to the Celtics. It was a given, meanwhile, that the former Celtics were going to attach a special significance to this game, no matter what anyone said to the contrary.
Let's clear something up right away: The Minnesota Timberwolves may not be very good - yet - but they're really not 7-35 bad. They had come here having defeated Golden State on the road and Phoenix at home, and they came very close to making it three in a row last night, forcing the Celtics into 23 turnovers while holding them to 42 percent shooting. Hey, if someone had blown a whistle while people were busy mauling each other under the Celtics' basket prior to Pierce's fifth-chance hoop, they might have won.
And if they had, everyone would be looking at this game in an entirely different light. They'd be hailing Jefferson, whose inside moves have gotten even better (one baseline dazzler evoked memories of his GM). They'd be praising Gomes, who is en route to a very solid, useful, 12-year career in this league. And they'd surely be asking why Telfair seldom played like this in a Boston uniform.
Of all the Celtic alums, none came here with more on his mind than the 6-foot point guard. "Telfair will not just be going up against [Rajon] Rondo," said one Celtics insider before the game. "He'll be going up against Wyc."
That would be Mr. Wyc Grosbeck, the Celtics' managing partner who, when Telfair was picked up on an automobile and firearms charge last spring, e-mailed members of the media with the news that Telfair's nameplate had been taken down from his locker. Many players get traded. Few are essentially fired before they're traded.
Until that last possession, Telfair was terrific. He had 18 points, six assists, and a fourth-quarter scoring burst that would have made him Minnesota's Man of the Match had the Wolves prevailed. He walked away with everything except the W.
Speaking of Ws, they have not come easily of late. The Celtics are a pedestrian 5-4 in the nine games following that conquest of the Pistons in Auburn Hills back on Jan. 5 and there are times when the game looks very difficult for them to play.
"We've just been so inconsistent," lamented Rivers. "I know our record over this stretch isn't awful, but it's not what we've established."
But we need to get a grip, all of us. They're 34-7 at midseason. They're 34-7 and they're in a little mild recession. It's the NBA. It's a long season.
This, too, shall pass.