|Celtic Kevin Garnett is again becoming a much-needed offensive presence, but only wants to talk about his defense. (Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe)|
Garnett gets defensive about his offense
He’s reluctant to admit his resurgence, as if he would jinx himself if he did. Kevin Garnett refuses to take questions about his offensive improvement, steering those inquiries to his defense and team success.
There is no denying Garnett has been more assertive and effective offensively in the postseason. His showdown with Miami’s Michael Beasley was a mismatch, despite Garnett missing Game 2 of the first-round series because of a suspension.
After shooting just 41 percent in April in the regular season, Garnett made nearly 58 percent of his shots against the Heat, using some spin moves from his glory years in Minnesota. Garnett hit several significant jumpers during Tuesday’s 96-86 clinching win in Game 5, and was the offensive catalyst down the stretch.
Garnett has been abrupt when asked about his surgically repaired right knee and addressing perceptions about his declining skills. But his numbers and increased agility prove he is nearing full health, and the Celtics desperately need a near-vintage Garnett when facing the top-seeded Cavaliers beginning tomorrow in Cleveland.
His matchup with Antawn Jamison could be the most important of the series. The Cavaliers acquired Jamison to stretch the floor and force power forwards such as Garnett to guard the perimeter, making more driving space for LeBron James.
“Cleveland is the No. 1 seed, they are the beast of the East,’’ Garnett said yesterday. “We respect that. It’s going to come down to execution and making shots. I’m just happy to be healthy in this situation to help my team.’’
Beasley’s performance against Garnett and the Celtics could have been his ticket out of Miami, and his physical ability was no comparison to Garnett’s savvy. And Garnett becomes an even tougher defensive assignment when he mixes his splendid jumper with more emphasis on the low-post game. His increased energy on spin moves and slashes to the basket are apparent and at the perfect time his right knee gained the mobility that was missing early in the season.
Garnett insists his main — and only — emphasis is defense and spearheading the Celtics’ effort to contain the Cavaliers. But the Celtics wouldn’t have even a fighting chance against Cleveland if Garnett is not an offensive weapon. His line on Tuesday — 14 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals — reflects a player who, similar to his team, is peaking at the right time.
The Heat had no answer for Garnett in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and his emergence could become a major factor in the Cleveland series. In the four regular-season meetings with the Cavaliers, Garnett shot just 42 percent and the Celtics were deflated by the energy of Anderson Varejao.
A healthier and more aggressive Garnett may offset Varejao’s effectiveness under the boards, which coach Doc Rivers said is a priority.
“He’s gotten more comfortable as the year’s gone on,’’ Rivers said of Garnett. “He’s healthy right now. I think he’s getting his rhythm right now. So I actually think he’s looking for his offense more, where before he just didn’t feel comfortable. We still get on him, because I think he can be even more aggressive offensively and I think he should be. But he’s such an unselfish player and there’s such a fine line with him. But clearly he feels more comfortable scoring-wise.’’
When asked about his offense yesterday, Garnett remained stone-faced and reiterated that offense is as much a priority for him as long sessions with the media. He scores because he can and he has to, but if the defense slips, then inadequacy sets in.
That’s why there was such discomfort during the regular season when he was burned by players such as Washington’s Andray Blatche or Houston’s Luis Scola. There was a feeling of anger, a tinge of embarrassment. But the fact Miami benched Beasley in the second half of Game 5 in favor of less-talented veteran Udonis Haslem was a sort of victory for Garnett.
The Miami players believed Beasley could exploit Garnett with his athleticism and ability to take the slower Garnett off the dribble. But that advantage never materialized, and during stretches of Game 4, Garnett looked dominant and Rivers allowed him to log a season-high 37 minutes as he aided the Celtics’ rally.
In Tuesday’s fourth quarter, Garnett canned two jumpers during a 6-0 run that increased the Celtics’ lead to an insurmountable 12. After the second shot, Garnett sprinted down the floor, pumping his arms slightly as if he had just crossed a major hurdle of his resurrection.
He would much rather discuss team defense or laud his teammates for their efforts in the Miami series, but his offensive improvement will be an issue against Cleveland. Jamison is going to have to come out and guard Garnett as he stands 18 feet from the basket. And the Cavaliers may have to double when Garnett gathers a Rajon Rondo pass in the post and ponders his next move.
That may not have occurred even three months ago. But that confidence is there and Garnett, silently, will look to exploit his matchup with Jamison, just as he did with Beasley.
“I wasn’t even focusing on how I was scoring the ball, my focus was on Beasley and Haslem and now it’s on Jamison,’’ he said. “It should be a good matchup. I have a lot of respect for what ‘Twan’ has done in this league.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.