Ziller wonders if the Lakers are secretly tanking.
Kevin Garnett was in a decent mood on Wednesday night, which was odd considering he and his Nets were barely a half hour removed from getting picked apart by the Celtics in the season opener. In years past, KG could be counted on to provide either a hushed thesis about what needed to be done to make sure this sort of thing never, ever happened again or he would be short and profane to make sure that you and everyone else understood this was not to going to be tolerated.
But genial? Nah. You had a better chance of finding Bin-fucking-Laden in the locker room, as he used to say, than catch Garnett smiling after a loss. Political-correctness has never been his thing, nor has going out of his way to praise an opponent.
Yet, after saying he and the Nets had to play harder and bring some grit to the game, he shouted out his old teammate Rajon Rondo, credited Brad Stevens ("Coach Stevens," no less) for his clever schemes and dapped up Marcus Smart for his tenacious play. That’s a coach he’s never played for with barely a year’s experience in the pros and a rookie from another team. You don’t need an advanced degree in the tao of KG to know that neither thing is part of the syllabus.
Context is everything here and it’s important to understand that KG’s post-game standup was as much about Boston as it was about him and the Nets. Unlike his nasty departure from Minnesota, Garnett has maintained good relations with not just the city, but the organization. He even played along with a question about Gino, a long-lost dancer from an episode of American Bandstand who appears in the Celtics’ celebratory video they like to play during blowouts.
No one has ever had more fun doing anything as Garnett had watching Gino and his reactions became as much campy fun as the outdated dance moves. Whenever Gino flashed on the screen, KG would hold his fist up to the sky and bow his head. He might even do the robot, or grab a teammate and make him watch like it was his first time seeing it. How would Garnett react when he was on other side? He didn’t.
"Listen, I was so upset I didn’t even get the really, really deep Gino in my system," Garnett said. "My low moment for the night, you know what I mean? Gino is a big part of me and I didn’t even get to celebrate it. I’m still a huge Gino fan."
And Garnett is still a huge fan of Boston and vice-versa. In what many thought was an unlikely scenario back in 2007 when he arrived, Garnett came to love Boston and in return, Boston loved KG unconditionally. They gave him a rousing welcome during introductions and lustily chanted his name in tribute after he picked up a technical foul for throwing an elbow at Kelly Olynyk, the C’s new center.
Olynyk didn’t back down, which on another day would have endeared him to the Garden faithful, but this was an appreciation for KG being KG: defiant, angry and more than a little chippy.
Never mind that Kelly freaking Olynyk just dropped 19 on what was once the best defender in the league. Or that Olynyk brushed off the elbow like it wasn’t even there. Never mind all that because it raises the inevitable question about whether this is it for Garnett, and if his 20th season will amount to little more than a sad farewell for one of the game’s proudest players.
The obituaries began last season when he sometimes appeared like Willie Mays playing out the string with the Mets, his uniform as unfamiliar as his struggles. Garnett turned back some of those doubts with a strong stretch when he once again played the five -- his least favorite position on the court -- and helped bring the Nets back from the dead. But the worries returned with a lackluster finish and dismal postseason performance.
Those of us who have watched him closely over the years selfishly hold out hope that he can still be the KG of old. Not the high-flying teenager capable of dominating both ends of the court in ways never seen before or since. Those days are long gone. Rather, we look for signs of the lion in winter, the guy who held the Celtics together with guts, guile and yards of Kinesio tape en route to a shocking conference finals appearance in 2012.
Seeing him in a lesser capacity is a deflating experience and an uncomfortable acknowledgement of athletic mortality far more disturbing than anything that’s happened to Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant. Injuries at least have the good grace of removing the doubt and false hopes of witnessing a slow decline in real time.
Retirement whispers have swirled around Garnett for the last five years, but few seriously doubted he would be back for the final season of his contract. He had the Nets guarantee the full $12 million on the last year of his deal as a condition of waiving his no-trade clause and accepting the move to Brooklyn. No one walks away from that kind of money, but one wonders if Garnett will simply vanish when the year is over like he does every offseason.
If he wanted to, he could easily continue finding employment in a league where functioning big men are rare and even the most limited giants find homes. Yet, it’s hard to envision him accepting the vagabond journeyman’s life. As much as he is credited with changing cultures through his preparation, hard work and knowledge, elder statesman doesn’t really fit his personality. Indeed, he offered a rare admission of his struggles earlier in the week, along with a vow to be better.
"I feel good about this year like I did last year," Garnett said in one of his increasingly-rare media sessions with the Brooklyn scribes. "But obviously, I have a little bit of edge to me this year, I'll say that. I didn't like the way I ended last year or even started last year. I am a very motivated person, very real with myself, watch a lot of film on myself, and I look to be a little different this year."
There were signs on Wednesday, even in the blowout. His jumper looked sharp and on target. His lift appeared to be better than last season and of course he was always talking, always engaged, always working to make an impact. Time can erode his athleticism and diminish his skills, but it will never take his effort.
"Ever since I’ve known him he’s had an edge, a chip on his shoulder. Nothing’s changed," his new coach Lionel Hollins said. "He’s going out in his way. He’s going to be aggressive, he’s going to be intense, he’s going to be a warrior. That’s just who he is."
We are left then with at least one more season to savor the moments, fleeting though they may be, of one of the game’s true originals. There had never been anyone like him when he joined the league in 1995 and there may never be another one like him ever again. We wait for signs that there’s still more left for Kevin Garnett.