In choosing to make his comeback on Monday night, for the Celtics' big showdown with the rival Orlando Magic, Kevin Garnett might have thought he was deflecting attention away from himself and his own injury. The story would be the C's rematch with the Magic after Christmas Day, and their endless struggle to contain Dwight Howard. No one would be focusing on KG and his strained calf muscle.
Perhaps that was the plan, until Garnett came up with the biggest play of the game to stifle the Magic's final drive. Whether he wanted it or not, KG had made himself the story, coming up with a timely steal on an errant Jameer Nelson pass with 15 seconds left, sealing the deal for a 109-106 Celtics victory at the TD Garden. The steal, followed by a downcourt lob to Ray Allen that resulted in two free throws, made the biggest statement of the night — KG was back, he was healthy, and he was ready to be a difference-maker again.
"I was just trying to be active," Garnett said after his first game back from a three-week absence. "I just knew I saw a passing lane — the lane was there, I saw the lane, and I took the ball. Ray was running, and I just threw it to him."
It sounds too simple. But when you're a 16-year veteran and you've established yourself as one of the great defenders of all time, it's supposed to be simple. Garnett returned to the Celtics on Monday night and immediately did what he does best, turning the C's back into a defense-first team that gets the stop when it matters most.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers liked what he saw from his entire team down the stretch, not just Garnett.
"I told our guys going into the fourth quarter, and I'm sure [Magic coach] Stan Van Gundy said the same thing — we both prepared for this to be a defensive game, and through three quarters, no one had heard that. And the first team that decides to defend will win this game. And for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter, still no one listened to it still. And then we got stops.
"Obviously Kevin was great and got the steal, but I thought everybody did it. Paul [Pierce] was on the ball with just smothering defense. I told them that in the last three minutes, we turned back to who we were. We're a defensive team, we became that, and that's how we won the game."
If you said defense was the Celtics' calling card from start to finish, you'd be lying. The C's let Howard go off for 33 points, they failed to contest the 3-point shot and watched the Magic hit 11 treys, and they hacked away instead of playing efficient on-ball defense. The Magic attempted 36 free throws to their 26.
Naturally, there are going to be small roadblocks here and there with Garnett easing his way back in. But the Celtics felt Garnett's impact right away, and they felt it long before the Big Ticket came away with his steal in the final seconds.
"We looked like a totally different team out there with Kevin on the court," Pierce said. "You can't replace what Kevin gives to our ballclub. He won't always show it with his numbers, but his presence and his feel for the game and everything he does for this team goes far beyond the numbers. You could see it tonight — we looked like a team. We were ready, we were energized, we were locked in. That's the culture that he's brought in here since he's been here from day one."
Monday was a big night for the Celtics, who not only got their star forward back on the floor, but also recorded a big win over a conference rival. But Garnett isn't about to rejoice just yet. There's still work to be done.
"I'm not celebrating anything," he said. "If anything, I'm trying to get better. I'm trying to get stronger. When we hoist a trophy, then I'll tell you something about celebration."