There was a moment in last night's game that struck me. It wasn't obvious. But for some reason, it screamed at me. And I didn't like it. It told me that Kevin Garnett is running on fumes. Here's the play:
What struck me was KG's initial reaction to the break. He drops his head in that way so many people do when they're begging their bodies for everything it has. Watch a baseball game when a guy hits a slow roller and he's digging to beat out the throw. He drops his head to summon every ounce of everything he's got to kick it into another gear.
When KG started running, when he looked for that other gear, he was at the 3 point line. Brendan Haywood was at the free throw line. By the opposite free throw line, they were even.
With Ray Allen running down the left side of the court and Dirk Nowitzki as the only other guy back, this play was SCREAMING for a Rondo-to-KG alley oop that would have brought the building down. It was perfectly set up. Except KG couldn't keep up. KG was tracked down from behind by Brendan Haywood, so he had to come up with a new plan.
Luckily for the Celtics, Garnett and Rondo are pretty smart players. Rondo realized the oop wasn't going to be there so he switched to plan B. Garnett read Rondo and set the pick. Rondo scores. And no one thinks anything of it.
But to me, that play spoke volumes. Because I know what that play used to be. I know what that play should have been. And I know what that play wasn't last night. What's worse is I don't know if that play will ever be THAT play again. Not consistently, anyway.
I've tried to hold off on writing this, even though I know this isn't the same KG I remember. I know it's almost a pre-eulogy to say all this stuff. And trust me, I want to be very, very wrong about this. I want some team chemistry to click in and the 5-5-5 plan to work and for KG to recapture some of his former glory.
I just don't see it, though. And I'm not alone.
Remember when Kevin Garnett used to haul in an offensive rebound in traffic inches from the hoop, then stuff home a rim-rattling dunk with a primal scream to match his fury? In this game, when KG grabbed that same rebound under the basket, he dribbled out to the baseline and took an 8-foot fallaway that bounced short.
Again, what else to do but cringe?
There has been legitimate hand-wringing over KG's underwhelming start. He is not unlike former Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez in his later years. Petey used to live and die by the heat of his fastball; in the stretch run of his brilliant career, he learned to be wily and clever and deliver offspeed pitches.
KG's offspeed pitch ain't bad. It's that shot from the elbow that his former Minnesota Timberwolves coach, Flip Saunders, swore Garnett hit at a 70 percent clip in his heyday. It remains a lethal bullet in KG's arsenal, but only if he's willing to shoot it.
There are few players prouder than KG. And Garnett, while not as explosive as he used to be, still plays hard, still lives to defend, and gives you a full honest night of sweat. His numbers were respectable against Dallas (16 points, 10 rebounds), but one of the lasting images of this damaging loss was an awkward, wide-open, short-armed attempt by KG in the final minute of the game that clanged off the rim.
The question now becomes "what do you do with Kevin Garnett?" He's still amazingly important to this team. He can still defend. He can still quarterback the defense and recognize sets. He can still pass incredibly well and, as Jackie MacMullan wrote there, he can nail that 15-17 footer.
Can you only get 20-25 good minutes out of him from now on? And if that's the case, do you slide him into more of a role with the second unit for most of the game, pairing him with the starters only to open and close the game? Or do you run pick-and-pops for him with Rondo or Ray Allen (so the D has to respect the shooter) more often?
I'm not sure what the answer truly is. The Celtics need to figure out a way to keep him effective at the game's most important moments. Because Garnett's ability to be effective at all is quickly slipping away.