Garnett will hear them and say, “Who are you calling ‘old’?”
With two of his future Hall of Fame teammates dragging along with injuries to their lower extremities, Garnett played like the KG of old — not an old KG — to push the Celtics to an 83-80 win at the TD Garden, ousting the Atlanta Hawks in six games. His turnaround jumper with 30 seconds left gave the Celtics the lead for good and helped send them to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they will face the Philadelphia 76ers.
Garnett has elicited awe since he entered the league in 1995 as a 6-foot-11 wunderkind from South Carolina by way of Chicago. Back then, he made jaws drop with his combination of size, athleticism and basketball IQ. Now, the incredulity stems from the 35-year-old’s ability to post lines of 28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots and three steals, with the ever-present addendum: “at his age.”
It is that last part that Garnett uses as fuel. Even when intended as a compliment, Garnett’s ears prick up at the mention of words like “seasoned” or “veteran” and other euphemisms for “old.”
“I don’t want this to come off wrong, but I really take my craft seriously,” Garnett said when asked to reflect on what he has been able to accomplish this season, at this stage of his career. “I guess being 35, soon to be 36, not 37 — look it up — I put a lot of work into my craft, like I always have since ’95, since I’ve come into this league. It’s almost like you guys are shocked, like this ain’t what I do every day, like this ain’t what I was made for. It does come off disrespectful at times.”
Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. made headlines by calling Garnett “the dirtiest player in the league,” but embedded in Gearon’s remark was a reference to Garnett being old, and that may have been Gearon’s greatest sin. Garnett began his postgame news conference by thanking Gearon for giving him “some extra gas” on a night the Celtics needed it.
Paul Pierce was clearly slowed by the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and Ray Allen never seemed to establish the solid base he prefers on his sore right ankle, so the Celtics ran their offense through Garnett in the post. Despite his highly publicized move to center, Garnett is mostly an outside scorer, but with that extra boost from the Hawks owner, Garnett muscled back down low for one game.
“He was phenomenal,” Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. “He bailed us out, really. You could see Ray couldn’t get his legs into his shot. I’ve never seen him miss that many free throws in my life. Paul just gave us everything he had, but didn’t have a lot. And then Kevin was fantastic.”
Unlike Garnett, Pierce seems to have no qualms about addressing his own mortality. As he tweeted after playing 44 minutes in Game 2, he is “too old for this!” Pierce admitted he was worn out after scoring 18 points and defending the Hawks’ Joe Johnson for 40 minutes on Thursday, and he still does not take for granted his decorated teammate who arrived five years ago.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” Pierce said. “When you’ve got four guys, Kevin, myself, [Rajon] Rondo, Ray, it’s never on one person’s back. Kevin, obviously carried the low post, offensively and defensive, like he has for years. We all take pressure off each other, and it was just beautiful to watch and beautiful to be a part of. I’m glad I have the opportunity to play with a guy like that.”
One day, Garnett might look back on his career and say the same thing. You know, when he gets old.