PHILADELPHIA — Keyon Dooling and the rest of the Celtics are running out of superlatives to describe Kevin Garnett. The proud, ageless big man has attracted all sorts of praise for his play in these playoffs, and there is little anyone can add at this point that will do Garnett’s performances justice. So Dooling kept it simple.
“He’s playing the best ball in the NBA right now,” Dooling said.
The veteran guard was straightforward and entirely accurate. If a Most Valuable Player Award were given out for just the playoffs, Garnett would be the runaway favorite. LeBron James, James Harden and Chris Paul have been various types of amazing in the playoffs, but the best of the best has been the player who looked finished as recently as January.
Following several staggering efforts in the opening round against the Atlanta Hawks, Garnett was even better in two of the first three games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. And he managed to do it without any ill-advised comments from the Sixers about him being “dirty” or “old” to fuel him.
Sixers forward Thaddeus Young was the first to let the word “dirty” slip out in a remark about Garnett, but Young used it as an expression of respect, rather than disdain.
“He’s a guy who’s going to go out there and do all the dirty work and play hard all the time,” Young said. “He’s going to motivate his team. That’s what he’s been doing the whole season and he’s just cranked it up to another level in this whole playoff series.”
Garnett’s play in the postseason may be unmatched, but until proven otherwise, the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder remain the popular picks for the NBA Finals. What Garnett has managed to do is so impressive in part because of the Celtics’ circumstances. With Paul Pierce and Ray Allen playing through injuries, and Brandon Bass, Mickael Pietrus and Avery Bradley trying to find their rhythms in their first run as playoff contributors with the Celtics, Garnett has had to take on more than he ever has as a Celtic.
Rajon Rondo has made sizable contributions, and unlikely heroes like Ryan Hollins and Dooling have stepped up to play key roles. But the Sixers’ victory over an injury-plagued Bulls team in the first round underscored how fragile playoff success can be.
No team is immune to a freak injury or sudden slump, but the Heat and Thunder still appear to be better insulated against such unforeseen occurrences. It is amusing how the loss of Chris Bosh has kneecapped the Heat in so many observers’ minds — just a week ago, Bosh was supposedly the Heat’s most infuriating player, and now some have speculated that James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have no hope of winning the championship without him. Garnett may be the playoffs MVP, but James holds the regular-season hardware.
Oklahoma City also showed it is capable of winning without Durant playing at the top of his game by making quick work of the Mavericks in the first round, and they took care of the Los Angeles Lakers in the first two games of their semifinal series. If the Thunder are concerned about Kendrick Perkins‘ hip or James Harden’s post-concussion condition, it has not shown up in the results.
With Garnett playing some of the best basketball of his life, the Celtics have proved that they can win with Pierce, Allen and other key players at less than 100 percent. They would stand a chance in a long series against any team still alive in the playoffs, especially if their ailing players wake up one morning pain-free. Experience is irreplaceable and unteachable, and the only team that can match the Celtics in that regard — the Lakers — looks fractured and confused.
Whenever James barrels down the lane or Durant flicks in a seemingly effortless 3-pointer, though, it is hard to imagine Garnett and the Celtics have changed the handicapping for the NBA Finals. Heat-Thunder still seems like the safe finals matchup to anticipate — for now.