In these mano a mano battles between the aging, all-time great and the budding star, there is often a moment that illustrates the whole story. Either the grizzled vet makes some savvy move to prove he's not finished yet, or the young buck leaves the legend in his wake in a resounding declaration that the future has arrived.
There was really no moment like that on Friday, though, when Kevin Garnett made his highly anticipated return to Minnesota to face off with Kevin Love. There was no defining moment because Garnett did not let it happen.
In a matchup with one of the steadiest, most physical big men in the game, Garnett won a grueling war of attrition, constantly denying Love position as the Celtics won 100-79.
"You don't guard Kevin Love or Kevin Garnett by yourself," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the Celtics' fourth straight victory vaulted them into first place in the Atlantic Division for the first time this season. "You saw both teams helping a lot. But the initial part of the defense was from Kevin. He made him catch it further out than he wanted to, which allowed us to help and get back."
Love's final stat line of 22 points and 11 rebounds looked impressive, but he never had much of an impact on the outcome. Garnett was on his hip, in his chest or shoulder-to-shoulder with him all game, helping to hold Love to 5-of-18 shooting from the floor.
Garnett kept grinding away, and his steadiness was evidenced by his half-by-half production. Garnett finished with a game-high 24 points — 12 in the first half on 6-for-10 shooting and 12 in the second half on 6-for-8 shooting. He led the Celtics with 10 rebounds — five before halftime and five after the break. He dealt four assists — you guessed it, two and two.
Greg Stiemsma drew the assignment of covering Love when Garnett was on the bench, but Stiemsma also shared some time on the court with Garnett. As usual, Stiemsma came away impressed by Garnett's play.
"It's incredible," Stiemsma said. "When he's playing at this high level that he's playing at, it's fun to be around. He's playing well. He's fired up. He's hitting shots, playing good defense. He covers up a lot of mistakes for a lot of guys, myself included. He's a fun guy to play with and a great guy to have around."
Garnett did generate one highlight like old times, posting up and drop-stepping toward the baseline for a thunderous one-handed dunk. That play came with Love on the bench, though, and victimizing rookie Derrick Williams just did not have the same storybook quality.
It is March, but there was no "one shining moment" for Garnett on Friday. There was only a 48-minute wrestling match for position in the trenches, and Garnett came out of it bruised, tired — and victorious.