By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; D03
BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett couldn't help the Boston Celtics defend their title last season with his game, as he was sidelined with a balky right knee. But through a seven-game victory over Chicago and a hard-fought series against Orlando that ended with the Magic advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, Garnett tried to assist his teammates the only way he could -- as a nattily dressed motivator on the bench, occasionally providing expletive-laced words of support, and as an instigator taunting opponents with his vitriolic curse words.
Having a foul-mouthed, 7-foot-1 cheerleader on the sideline led to some entertaining moments, but Celtics Coach Doc Rivers rolled his eyes last week as he explained that the influence of Garnett's presence was extremely overblown.
"Everybody was making a big deal about Kevin being on the bench," Rivers said. "Nobody listens to a guy -- a player -- that's not dressed. They just don't. I don't care how good they are, because you're not out there with them. They may have listened, but it just didn't have the same impact."
Following this season's stirring six-game upset of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are in the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years and set for a postseason rematch with the Magic starting Sunday afternoon in Orlando.
Garnett has given the Celtics a reminder of what it feels like to have him in uniform for a playoff run. He has provided leadership, such as boldly declaring that the Celtics couldn't go back to Cleveland after a blowout win in Game 5. He has provided emotional fire, jokingly explaining that he was able to get Rasheed Wallace to finally show up in Game 2 because "I slapped his [rear]."
Most important, Garnett has provided production, averaging 17.6 points and 8.3 rebounds, a marked improvement from the regular season, when he averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, his lowest production since his rookie season.
Glen "Big Baby" Davis filled in admirably for Garnett during last year's playoffs, hitting a buzzer-beating jumper in Orlando and getting caught up in a minor controversy after barreling over a young fan to celebrate. Davis provided statistical relief for Garnett, but the intangibles were lacking. It's not a coincidence that the Celtics have yet to lose a playoff series with Garnett in the lineup.
"KG is a champion," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "His presence on both ends of the floor -- as a player, as a leader and as a veteran -- is big for those guys."
Garnett isn't back at the physical level he was when he was named defensive player of the year two years ago, or even before his right knee injury. But he is closer to being healthy again, which was a concern after hyperextending his knee in late December. Washington Wizards forward Andray Blatche ruthlessly outplayed him in two games late in the season and called the 33-year-old future Hall of Famer "washed up."
He was far from finished in the second round against Cleveland. Rivers wanted Garnett to take advantage of his favorable matchup against the shorter Antawn Jamison. Garnett delivered, providing the most difficult matchup not named Rajon Rondo for the Cavaliers. And, in the series clincher, Garnett had 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting with 12 rebounds and secured the victory when he came sprinting down the court and dunked.
"Over the course of the season, I've been fortunate to be healthy and I can honestly say, each month, I've gotten stronger," Garnett said. "The playoffs come around, it's time to pick it up another notch and that's all I've been trying to do. Nothing more than that, less than that. It's no secret, I take care of my body. I'm a workaholic when it comes to trying to better myself. Nothing's changed, just trying to better myself."
Garnett will have his knee put to the test chasing around Orlando forward Rashard Lewis, who blew past him for a game-winning layup in the final seconds of a 96-94 Magic win in late January, the last time Boston played in Orlando. But Garnett's teammates also realize that Orlando will have to contend with a healthier Garnett, who has made steady progress since having surgery last May.
"The doctor said it would take at least a year for him to heal," Celtics swingman Paul Pierce said. "I think right now, you are starting to see a healthy Kevin, the way he is elevating, he's looking like he's closer to 100 percent. When you have surgery, it takes a lot out of you and it's good to see him playing so well and consistent because we are going to need him. And there's no way we can win a championship without him."
After the Celtics dispatched LeBron James and Cleveland, Garnett stood at the interview podium and smiled as he looked round. "There's a lot of people in this room, boy," Garnett said. "Man! Lot of people in this room. Haven't seen this many people in this room since, uh, '08. Hmmmm."
It's also been that long since the Celtics have seen this version of Garnett in the playoffs. The one in uniform, anyway.