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Saunders is conditioned to praise Garnett

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 3, 2012
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There may be no one in the NBA more familiar or complimentary of Kevin Garnett than Wizards coach Flip Saunders, who coached Garnett in his first 10 seasons and watched him drop 24 points with nine rebounds Sunday night in Washington.

Saunders took over as Timberwolves coach 20 games into Garnett’s rookie season in 1995-96 and has watched him transform from a raw but skilled rookie into a future Hall of Famer.

“The one thing about KG is his adjustment [to aging] started when he was a rookie all the way until now, 17 years later. Whatever [opponents] give him he’s going to take,’’ Saunders said before being ejected with 10:14 left in the first quarter. “Whatever the coach asks him to do, he’s going to do. If they want him to try to score more, he might try to score more. He’s going to always make the right play when he’s on the floor.’’

Garnett played 34 minutes last night, the most since the season-opening loss to New York, and produced 10 points with 6 rebounds and 6 assists in the Celtics’ 100-92 win.

Saunders recalls that the 7-foot Garnett was a small forward in his early years with the Timberwolves, then developed into an All-Star power forward and might end his career as a center. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Garnett will be expected to play more center this season with Jermaine O’Neal unable to play major minutes.

“His effectiveness has been astonishing except for the injured year [2008-09],’’ Saunders said. “When he was down there, he would always make the right play. He wouldn’t take a poor shot and if he got trapped he would pass the ball out, so he’s going to make the right play.’’

Garnett’s contract expires after this season and he has not addressed his status. Retirement may be an option but Saunders said conditioning has extended Garnett’s career.

“The one thing about KG, he’s always taken care of himself,’’ Saunders said.

Early ejection

Saunders lasted only 2 minutes and 46 seconds last night. He was ejected for arguing a non-call on Rashard Lewis, who had his shot blocked by Greg Stiemsma. Stiemsma landed on Lewis and they tumbled to the floor. Saunders raced to the floor to argue and official Greg Willard immediately ejected Saunders, who walked past midcourt and needed to be escorted off the floor. Saunders was replaced by assistant Randy Wittman.

Saunders did not speak with reporters after the game.

“Happened so fast, I don’t know if it was a minute 40 or minute 30 into the game,’’ Wittman said. “I don’t think it really gave us a chance to think too much about it, it happened so fast.’’

O’Neal out

O’Neal left Sunday’s win in the fourth quarter with a tight left hamstring and was held out last night. Stiemsma made his first NBA start. He scored 4 points and blocked two shots before leaving in the first quarter with two fouls. He finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.

“Stiemsma was terrific. He was absolutely wonderful,’’ Rivers said. “And I was so happy when he just took the shot. My favorite play of the whole game was he missed a shot and they threw it right back to him and he shot it again. I mean, that’s terrific. That was . . . I thought the whole bench was excited over that because it’s what we’ve been saying.’’

Rivers said trainer Ed Lacerte suggested that O’Neal sit out, and with the team not practicing today it will allow two full days off for him.

Chris Wilcox returned to the lineup after missing three games with a bruised left shoulder. He went scoreless in 10 minutes but grabbed four boards.

Quick hook

Rivers said Sasha Pavlovic was a healthy DNP-coach’s decision last night because the coach wanted more quickness on the floor against Washington’s John Wall. Pavlovic started the first three games . . . Ray Allen attempted five technical free throws in the first 8:12, two on the Saunders technical, one on a Wall taunting call, and two on defensive three-second calls . . . Rivers said newly acquired Mickael Pietrus might practice Thursday for the first time since joining the team.

Gary Washburn can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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