It was a basket that didn't even count last night that told you all needed to know about how different these Celtics are from the team that limped -- literally and figuratively -- to a 50-32 record last season before putting it together in the playoffs to come within a couple of rebounds of another ring.
Kevin Garnett faced up Nuggets center/power forward Nene, looked at the rim, looked back at Nene, took a dribble, and blew right by the Brazilian big man as the whistle shrieked for a defensive three-second violation. Garnett, who always goaltends opponents shots when they launch after the whistle to send a message, had another deadball missive this time, effortlessly throwing down a one-handed jam. Just because he could.
The message was: I'm back. Now get the bleep out my way. Garnett's return to form from the knee surgery he underwent in 2009 to remove painful bone spurs is the biggest reason that the Celtics, who won their eighth straight last night, dispatching the Carmelo Anthony-free Denver Nuggets (get used to that phrase), are ready to take their talents back to the NBA Finals.
Last year, Garnett wouldn't have wasted what little lift he could muster on such a superfluous play. He couldn't afford to. It is impossible to overestimate the difference a healthy Garnett can make for the Celtics. It's like watching the Patriots this season with quarterback Tom Brady versus last season with Brady. You know it when you see it.
Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, who played two seasons in Minnesota with Garnett and has remained close with him, knows what an unencumbered KG looks like. That's exactly what he saw last night, as Garnett had 17 points (on 8-of-9-shooting) and nine rebounds.
"It's the KG that I always knew," said Billups. "Obviously, he makes them so much better. He can affect the game in so many ways. Me personally, as that being my partner, I'm just happy to see him back healthy."
So is Garnett. That's obvious in his on-court demeanor, said Billups.
"Sure. Just his energy level," said Billups. "He's able to get to certain spots on the floor faster, and I can definitely notice it."
Even during the playoffs last year, when Garnett had a renaissance of sorts, most of his points were coming from face-up jumpers. His balky right knee resulted in failure to launch around the rim. Alley-oops were just beyond his reach. Players who would never dream of challenging KG were dunking on him with reckless abandon. Rebounds that had always belonged to him ended up in the hands of the opposition.
It was painful to watch, a power forward robbed of his power by a bad wheel. So it's a joy now to watch Garnett restored to his rightful place above the rim.
Last night, half of the eight shots he hit were either dunks or layups. In the first quarter, he scored on two plays he wouldn't have made last season. The first was a pick-and-roll layup on which Rondo lobbed him the ball and Garnett caught it in the air, landed and bounded right back up before a defender could stop him. Later in the quarter he ran the length of the court and threw down an alley-oop slam on the run.
Garnett admitted he's trying to be more aggressive and assertive this season on the offensive end, but the most notable sign of his re-found robustness is on the boards.
"Offensively, I don't really come into the games saying I need to score this many points," said Garnett. "I might have a goal as far as rebounding. Defensively is where it starts for me."
Pat Riley uttered it first and it's become a hardwood homily: No rebounds, no ring.
The Celtics were a woeful rebounding bunch last season, finishing second to last in the league (38.6 per game). They had a rebound differential of minus-1.5. The Celtics are still not a great rebounding team, but they've reversed their differential. Even with their best rebounder, Kendrick Perkins, on the shelf, Boston is averaging a rebound more per game and is a plus-1.6 in rebounding differential.
Look no further than KG. In his last six games, Garnett's rebounding column has looked like this: 9, 14, 17, 8, 10, 11.
Last season Garnett averaged 7.3 rebounds per game, his lowest total since he was a wide-eyed rookie straight out of Farragut Academy in 1995. This year Garnett is averaging 9.8 rebounds per game, which is more than he pulled down during his debut season on Causeway Street. We all know how that ended.
Rebounding has always been like breathing for Garnett, and last year he couldn't catch his breath. We're talking about a player who won four straight NBA rebounding titles from 2003 to 2007. The only other players to do that are Wilt Chamberlain (1959-63), Moses Malone (five straight seasons from 1980 to 1985), and the inimitable and utterly one-dimensional Dennis Rodman, who won seven straight rebounding crowns from 1991 to 1998.
Watching the Celtics now, it's clear that health -- not the Miami Heat -- is the opponent that can stop the progeny of the parquet from reaching their third NBA Finals in four seasons. Honestly, it's the only thing that has stopped them since Danny Ainge united Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Garnett's knee forced them out of the playoffs in 2009 at the hands of the Magic, and the loss of Perkins in Game 6 of last year's NBA Finals allowed the Lakers to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
That's why Rajon Rondo's hamstring injury makes you a little nervous. You would hate to see the Celtics' floor leader forced to play compromised just as their emotional leader is reclaiming his game.
But if this is the Garnett that the Celtics are getting this season, then, to borrow his guttural celebration line -- anything is possible.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.