Questioning adds to Garnett’s pain

Kevin Garnett’s intensity can lead to clashes with teammates. Kevin Garnett’s intensity can lead to clashes with teammates. (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2010

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CHICAGO — He’s in the middle of a bar fight. That’s how Kevin Garnett sees it. Some nights, after another vexing Celtics loss, after another underwhelming stat sheet reveals KG has hauled in only one rebound, the epicenter of Boston’s professional basketball universe strides to the press room muttering profanities to himself, bracing for the next blow to his reputation.

It has been a mental and physical grind, slogging his right leg up the parquet as he rehabs from offseason knee surgery. His scoring has dipped, his rebounding has plummeted, and his ability to elevate has been compromised.

The Celtics, once considered championship contenders, open the playoffs tonight against the Miami Heat downgraded by prognosticators to second-round fodder for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The reason: their defensive core, Kevin Garnett, isn’t right.

“They told me when I first got this injury it would take a year,’’ Garnett said. “I’ll be very candid with you. I didn’t believe them.’’

His strategy was to accelerate his recovery by outworking the injury, attacking his rehabilitation with the same passion he exhibited against a lifetime of basketball opponents. Never in his 15-year career has Garnett exerted so much effort and received so little in return, a cruel irony that resonated with him during the short walk from the locker room to the podium where, he knew, the same old question awaited: “Did you guys play hard enough tonight?’’

“I hate that,’’ said Garnett, spitting out the words. “I’m working off the charts and still people question our effort. It bothers me. It pushes me to find ways to go harder.

“But they tell me, ‘Sometimes you have to pull back,’ so I’m trying to learn that. It’s a battle for me.’’

He knows the doubters are multiplying. NBA observers point to the March 7 game against Washington, when young Andray Blatche dropped 23 points on KG, as evidence his dominant days are behind him.

“I watched and said, ‘Oh, man, he’s done,’ ’’ said Detroit assistant Darrell Walker. “The things Blatche did to him . . . dunking on him like that. If KG was right, it would never happen.

“I was there for the final days of Michael Jordan. This reminds me of that — exactly. Michael was one of the most competitive people ever. KG, too. But when you don’t have the same explosiveness anymore, it’s over.

“You can still get it done every once in a while, but every night? It just doesn’t happen. Even mentally tough guys like MJ and KG can’t get past it. It’s why players retire. It gets too hard.’’

As the Celtics venture into the postseason questions persist whether Garnett’s physical woes are temporary or permanent. Can he reinvent himself as a perimeter threat? Can he regain one of his most imposing weapons — his ability to intimidate?

In that March 7 game, Wizards players revealed, coach Flip Saunders (who was with Garnett for 10 seasons in Minnesota) instructed them to attack Garnett, force him to guard them one-on-one instead of allowing him to flourish in the “help defense’’ mode. The coaches also urged JaVale McGee to block Garnett’s first shot, even if it meant a goaltending call, because in KG’s current mental state, they surmised, he would subsequently alter his shot (Garnett finished 0 for 7 from the floor).

“I hate what’s happening,’’ said Wizards assistant (and Garnett confidant) Sam Cassell. “I’ve never seen KG get one rebound. One rebound! But if you ask me, would I like to have him on my team, right now? Hell, yeah. He’s the best competitor I’ve ever been around.’’

Some of the most ardent Garnett fans, Charles Barkley among them, don’t share Cassell’s optimism. Rival general managers chortle that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor finally did something right by balking on giving KG a lucrative extension. That contract is on Boston’s books now, but there is no buyer’s remorse, according to Celtics boss Danny Ainge, even if KG never fully recovers.

“Was he worth it? Absolutely,’’ Ainge said. “He won us a championship. He changed our culture.

“I don’t know what will happen with Kevin. He’s made a boatload of money. He’s won a title. How hard will he rehab if it takes a year? Or maybe he works as hard as he always has and his body doesn’t respond. We’ll know more next season.’’

In a rare exclusive interview last Monday in Chicago, a resolute Garnett vowed he will return in 2010-11 as a player to be reckoned with, and believes he can impact the playoff series with Miami.

“It’s amazing how quickly people forget,’’ Garnett said. “They want to see you fly high like you always did. They’re not even thinking about how you aren’t even 100 percent, playing on one leg.

“I’m dealing with being a guy who always had great offensive skills, who could shoot the ball, and now I can’t even get a bucket.’’

He momentarily bows his head, then snaps it back up abruptly.

“I like it, though,’’ he said. “These people saying this stuff, they don’t know [expletive] about me.

“They don’t know this summer, with the education I’ve gathered on my injury, just wait. They see you hurt, they see you get dunked on, they think your guard is down. That’s when I take the clips off my guns.’’

Excruciating pain
The onerous bone spur, the size of Garnett’s considerably large thumb, did not lodge itself into the tendon in the back of his knee overnight. It became more invasive as the days dragged on last season.

“It felt like a rug burn,’’ Garnett explained, “only there was a sharp edge to it, and every time I bent my knee or extended it, there was this pain. I thought I could grit through it. But it was excruciating.’’

As the playoffs approached, team doctors recommended anti-inflammatory medication and cortisone injections. KG was adamant: no drugs. An operation, he informed them, was a last resort. In high school, he chose not to surgically repair a meniscus tear on the same leg.

The Celtics trucked in Alter G, an anti-gravity treadmill designed to strengthen the coordination of muscles while protecting the surrounding joints.

KG tried it. He did exercises, joint mobilization. Eventually, he even agreed to take a couple of Aleve.

It wasn’t until assistant Armond Hill, a veteran coach whom KG greatly admires, gently told him surgery was the only option and Garnett finally acquiesced. Looking back, should he have shut it down sooner?

“You can’t just tell someone who gives a [expletive] about the team to sit down,’’ Garnett retorted.

The spur was so large it had to be broken into pieces to be removed. In hindsight, his medical team concurred, it was amazing he played as long as he did.

Garnett, so meticulously prepared, so maniacally committed, carefully crafted his career by vigorously guarding his privacy and preserving an unblemished reputation. Now, suddenly, his future was out of his control.

“You should have come and got me when I was 26 or 27,’’ he told Ainge, ruefully. “I would have been done by now, but we would have had three or four championships.’’

Room to grow
There has been a shift in the Celtics locker room. Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins yearn for more control, more shots, more cachet. Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen understand they must sacrifice some of their numbers to stimulate that growth.

Yet KG’s standards are uncompromising. He is fiercely loyal yet fiercely demanding, expecting his teammates to emulate his work ethic.

His pregame ritual is so frenetic players steer clear of his locker. When Garnett comes out of the game for the first time, they wait to give him a cup of water because his hands are still shaking. When he’s on the bench, it is not uncommon for him to grab the grease board and diagram instructions with his finger during a timeout.

Garnett’s intensity fuels his game, but occasionally burns his teammates in the process.

“He can’t stand the nonsense in that locker room,’’ said Cassell. “He’s irritated by guys who act like clowns. Every game is a big game to KG. He can’t understand why his teammates don’t feel the same way.’’

KG’s heated exchanges with Wally Szczerbiak in Minnesota were legendary. When he first came to Boston, Garnett and Allen, who had pregame rituals of his own, also clashed. And it’s no secret KG has badgered Rondo to become more consistent.

“In the past, I’ve had instances with teammates where I felt they haven’t been focused enough and I said what I had to say,’’ Garnett conceded. “I thought it damaged some relationships a little bit.

“I’ve always tried to be the person who says things no one else wants to say. I’ve always kept it in house, as opposed to going to the papers.

“We have some younger guys who are important parts of this team who prepare differently. They are a little more relaxed. I’m old school. I’m locked into my own little circle. If you cross the line, you’re going to get bit. They’ll always know where I’m coming from and once we hit the floor, there’s no doubt.

“I’ve had to take a step back and say, ‘If this is how this guy needs to prepare, I got to let him.’ But I still need to do my thing.’’

Saunders may have devised ways for his young, athletic Wizards to exploit Garnett, but he predicts KG will return with a vengeance next season.

“It’s a mistake to think he’s done,’’ Saunders said. “People don’t understand his first 10 years he was the best perimeter shooter in the NBA from 12 to 18 feet. His ability to go out there will save him. Defensively, he’s still 7-foot-1 and long. He may not make those spectacular athletic plays anymore, but he’s going to help that team.’’

Celtics coach Doc Rivers concurs, and takes it a step further.

“I still believe Kevin can be a low-post threat,’’ Rivers said. “It won’t be who he is every night, but he can be a very effective pick-and-pop player.’’

Garnett accepts his numbers will be diluted as the stature of Rondo and others increase.

“I’m willing to sacrifice,’’ he said. “My mentality is, ‘Here’s your niche. Get in your lane. Do the best you can in this lane.’

“Some nights I look and say, ‘Oh my God, I only got four rebounds?’ Then I see Rondo has 11, Perk has 9, Paul has 4, and even Ray has 3. I’m playing a lot of help defense, so I’m away from the basket a lot.

“In Minnesota, I never played defense of this caliber. It was Western Conference style, everyone around the ball, about 200 shots are going up. You’re going to get 15, maybe 16 rebounds, and play 40-plus minutes.

“So that’s how I’m assessing it. But obviously if you pick up the stat sheet and put it side by side to the old ones, you say, ‘What the hell is going on?’

“People judge you on stats versus the science of the team as a whole.

“Now I’m not saying there haven’t been nights when I haven’t done it. There have been those nights.

“A lot of times I haven’t been right, and Doc or Eddie [Lacerte] try to sit me down. I’ve never had a guy ‘Son’ me like Doc does.

“He’s telling me, ‘Son, this is what we’re going to do.’ He’s like a dictator. He’s Castro. It’s his way or no way. No discussion. I’m dealing with it. But when I sit there I’m thinking, ‘They’re paying me. I have to play.’ ’’

KG has made some subtle changes. He concentrates on keeping the ball alive if he can’t snare the rebound. He attempts more 14-footers than rim-rattling dunks. Is he getting old? Of course. The miles on his body are a legitimate factor.

But getting old is one thing. Being old and damaged is quite another.

“I hope he doesn’t end up like I did,’’ said former Celtics star Kevin McHale, who played on a broken foot in the 1987 NBA Finals. “When you get hurt, it becomes drudgery. You miss practice to have treatment. You stay late after the game for more treatment. All of a sudden it’s a long, long day. You drive to the arena, try to get loose, and you know that’s going to hurt.

“You go see the trainer and that’s going to hurt, too. The pain, it gains on you. And when you are done, you know you have to get up and do it all over again. Eventually, it wears you out.’’

KG swears he’s not tired. He’s steeled himself for this bar fight. Some nights he is blindsided by the blows. Other nights, he takes them head on, like a man. The plan is for Kevin Garnett to keep on swinging, eyes smoldering, nostrils flaring, fighting back the only way he knows how: all out.

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