If you know Kevin Garnett, you knew there was no way he was going to let the Chicago Bulls push him around on Friday night.
Joakim Noah had called him out last month, referring to him in a radio interview as "mean" and "ugly." Noah and Derrick Rose were beginning to build a case that they belonged among the Eastern Conference elites. The TD Garden was being invaded by a couple of youngsters who were in grade school when Garnett first arrived in the league. The Big Ticket wasn't about to stand for that.
"These young kids have no respect," said Shaquille O'Neal, Garnett's 38-year-old teammate. "Kevin just had to teach them."
He taught them a lot. In front of a sellout crowd, on national television, with a king-sized spotlight shining on his rivalry with the 25-year-old Noah, Garnett stepped up and played his best game of the season. Perhaps his best game in several seasons. KG dropped 20 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block on the Bulls, demolishing their front line and sparking a 104-92 victory for the Celtics on their home floor.
Last week, KG referred to Shaq as a time traveler from the past, calling him "the 1999 Shaq, the 2000 Shaq, the 2001 to 2002 to 2003 to 2004 to 2005 to 2006 Shaq." On Friday Shaq returned the favor, alluding to the "1995 KG." Suddenly the Celtics' forward looks like the scrawny high school kid from South Carolina again.
"He?s playing at a high level," O'Neal said. "Especially when the young disrespectful cats come out, he steps his game up. You know, he?s playing well. He?s playing very well."
"I really liked the way Kevin reasserted himself, on both ends of the ball," added Paul Pierce. "He really stepped up to the challenge of guarding Noah and Carlos Boozer, knowing that's pretty much the meat of their front line. He just tried to go out there and outplay everybody. That's the vintage Kevin that we know. He showed a lot of flashes of his old self out there."
In the past, Garnett hasn't been shy about his rivalries with other big men around the league. He's made no secret this season, for example, about his on-court animosity with Andray Blatche and Andrea Bargnani. But when it came to Noah, the Bulls' agitating youngster who drew boos from the TD Garden crowd all night long, KG stayed remarkably reserved.
He didn't want to admit that Friday night was about shutting Noah down and shutting him up. This was just another basketball game. Just another hard-earned win.
"What can I say?" Garnett said. "Effort, and heart, and grit, and just working. Everybody's a little beat up around this time, and I'm no different from that. But with heart and determination, who knows? Anything can happen. Tonight was just that."
Even when pressed further, he wouldn't make it about Noah.
"Let me tell you something about people, man," he said. "Everybody has an opinion. And obviously he had one. But I'm not entertaining nor addressing nobodies. I'm not even entertaining it. I'm just focused on basketball — just winning, and trying to make this team better."
"I don't think he needed that, to be honest," coach Doc Rivers said of KG's beef with Noah. "I don't think they liked each other much before that, so I don't think it really mattered. Kevin's going to play, and if you're going to talk, he's going to still play."
Garnett played his heart out Friday. He made quick work of Noah and Boozer, and by the seven-minute mark in the fourth quarter, he had already piled up 20 points and 17 boards. He was threatening his first 20-20 game since his Boston debut back in 2007. If the Celtics hadn't built up a blowout lead, Rivers would have left him in and let him go for it.
But the Celtics coasted to victory thanks to Garnett's stellar performance, and the fourth quarter was a snooze. The starters were resting, Gino was dancing, and rather than cheer for their Celtics down the stretch, the fans at the TD Garden were instead chanting for Brian Scalabrine. Thanks to KG, it was that kind of night.
And yet Garnett refused to admit it had any kind of special significance.
"Any time you win," he said, "it's enjoyable."
The Celtics have had plenty to enjoy over the last six games. Kevin Garnett's been a big reason why.