WALTHAM, Mass. — Ryan Hollins is not sure why opponents keep calling Kevin Garnett "dirty" or "old" or any number of other things that only serve as more verbal fuel for the veteran big man. All Hollins hopes is that they keep doing it.
"I hope they keep fueling him," Hollins said at Friday's shootaround in advance of the Celtics' second-round series opener against the Philadelphia 76ers this weekend. "But dirty? By no means is he dirty. The definition of a dirty player is a guy who tries to hurt guys. It's illegal moves, sliding under guys in the air, putting your foot under him so he gets hurt. KG's never intentionally tries to hurt anybody. He's not dirty by any means, and I'd feel disrespected by the same comments."
Garnett, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is having another outstanding season at the defensive end. In Hollins, a 7-foot, 230-pound midseason signing by the Celtics, Garnett has found something of a kindred spirit in terms of defensive intensity and the tendency to get under other players' skin.
Garnett and Hollins emerged as one of Celtics head coach Doc Rivers' favorite pairings during the team's first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. Rivers called them his best frontcourt duo defensively, and the numbers reflect that. In 37 minutes together on the court, Garnett and Hollins helped hold the Hawks to 30.6 percent shooting and were plus-34 in points. Their defensive efficiency, if the statistic were relevant in such a small sample size, was fewer than 63 points per 100 possessions.
Those statistics clearly came in short duty, but the pairing passed the eye test as well. The Celtics' defensive rotations were tighter with Garnett and Hollins playing together than when one of them shared the court with Greg Stiemsma or Brandon Bass. Rivers utilized Hollins and Garnett together for 12 minutes of the Celtics' Game 6 win over the Hawks on Thursday, sacrificing Bass' outside shooting for Hollins' length and athleticism.
"Honestly, he's an irritant," Rivers said. "He [ticks] guys off in practice. He does. He just irritates people, and I thought especially against Atlanta, they had guys who'd get upset. I thought Ryan's actions would bother some of the guys. The funny thing is, he's the nicest guy. He doesn't mean to. It's just what he does."
Whether Hollins and Garnett are as effective against the Sixers remains to be seen. Rivers hinted on Friday that in contrast to the Hawks, the Sixers are not "that type of makeup," which sounded like he was implying the Sixers will not let Garnett and Hollins' physical play get into their heads to such an extent.
This season has been one of discovery for the Celtics. They found a defensive X-factor on the perimeter in Avery Bradley and another one in the post in Stiemsma. Another one may have surfaced just when the Celtics needed it most.
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