PHILADELPHIA — Kevin Garnett exited the game, walked to the Celtics bench and plopped down in a seat next to Keyon Dooling. Garnett was on his way to a 27-point, 13-rebound showing in the Celtics' blowout victory over the Sixers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and Dooling welcomed him to the bench by proceeding to talk his ear off.
It did not appear as though Dooling was simply telling Garnett, "Nice job." Their conversation resembled more of a business discussion, and that may have been what it was. Basketball is their profession, after all, and few take their craft as seriously as Dooling and Garnett do.
"It seems like we talk all the time," Dooling said. "Basketball is an active game. You're actively making adjustments. You're actively looking for weaknesses. You're actively telling guys something to impact the next possession or the next game, so it's not one single thing that I can narrow it down that we'd talk about."
Dooling's importance to the team this season has exceeded what the statistics suggest. He is playing fewer than 10 minutes per game in the playoffs and scoring less than three points per game, but of all the Celtics' role players, he may be the one who commands the most respect within the team. His combination of even-minded professionalism and boundless energy has been a valuable part of the Celtics' postseason success.
"Keyon's had moments where he's had DNPs, one or two minutes, and then he's gotten whole fourth-quarter minutes," said Ryan Hollins, who has spent more time on the court with Dooling in the playoffs than any teammate other than Garnett. "He's always ready to play. He approaches the game with intensity and he always makes sure all the guys on the bench, one through 15, are ready to go and ready to play hard."
Among fans, Dooling's most popular contribution is his celebratory dance, dubbed "Flexin'," that he and Marquis Daniels perform on the bench after big plays. Dooling claims ownership of the dance and hopes it catches on, because that would mean the Celtics are winning. Nobody wants to dance like a loser. Everybody wants to dance like a winner.
But Dooling is far from just a mascot. He may lead the Celtics in floor burns per minute by diving for loose balls and sacrificing his body on defense. With shutdown defender Avery Bradley dealing with a recurrent injury to his left shoulder, Dooling has provided key relief for the second-year guard without showing much of a drop-off at either end of the court.
"He's a great defensive player," Bradley said. "I feel like we all feed off each other. We know our role is to come into the game and bring that defensive energy and to play hard at the defensive end. That's what we do."
Several times in these playoffs, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers has commended the second unit for bringing energy and returning to the team's principles after the starters stagnate or get away from their system. Those qualities just happen to be two of Dooling's strengths, and it is not surprising that the Celtics have held opponents to a little more than 88 points per 100 possessions with Dooling on the court in the playoffs.
Garnett and Dooling have been a particularly potent duo, which is part of why Rivers has paired them so often during the playoffs. Entering Game 4, the Celtics were plus-12 in the playoffs when Garnett and Dooling were both on the floor, mostly due to their defense. Yet Dooling admits that playing with Garnett makes almost any player better, and he said he is well aware of the slightly different way he and the Celtics' second unit has to approach the game.
"We're not like the first unit," Dooling said. "We can't really play out of random. We can't play without a structure. To first thing we do, structurally, is offensively get into a set and defensively pick up the intensity, and let the chips fall where they may."
Dooling has been a dependable reserve guard for a dozen years, posting consistent per-minute numbers despite averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game in his career. He has figured out tricks to stay warm when he is not playing, like hopping off the bench quickly and moving around during timeouts to get his blood pumping.
That sort of analytical approach is what makes proven stars like Garnett receptive to Dooling's input. Towel-wavers in the NBA are a dime a dozen — or a few million dollars per dozen, more accurately — but without a resume that commands respect, the cheerleader may get tuned out quickly.
"You need your bench to have great spirit, obviously," Rivers said. "You need them to come in and play a role, but you also need them to be able to tell the starters the truth. I thought we had that [in 2007-08] and that's what Keyon does now. He lays it on them, not just his guys. When the starters come off the floor, if they're not playing right, they're going to hear it from Keyon, and they accept it, which is important.
"His play has allowed him to talk more. When you defend the way he's defending, you can pretty much say what you want."
Dooling was busy last offseason, when his position on the National Basketball Players Association's executive committee commanded much of his time. He could be in for another eventful offseason if the reported conflicts within the players association spill out into public again, as they did in did in April when an apparent rift opened between executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher.
Those labor affairs are far from Dooling's mind now, of course. The only business he is concerned with is the Celtics' push for another championship and being a de facto captain on the bench. He embraces that role, if not the designation.
"I don't put any titles on anything," Dooling said. "I think we all have leadership qualities in us, and I just try to let mine shine. At some points, you've got to follow. Some points you've got to lead. But at all times you can work hard, be prepared, know the game plan and schemes and try to help your teammates."
Doolings responsibilities — keeping the bench sharp, holding the starters accountable and showing younger players how to conduct themselves as professionals — may be minor in the Celtics' grand scheme, but the C's hope those principles spread throughout the team. In the playoffs, every player needs to lead to some extent. Dooling is here to show them the way.