Break up the Big Three?
Maybe down in Miami, where the trio of so-called superstars have the collective toughness of your average 9-year-old girl.
But not in Boston, where the Celtics are on the verge of a huge postseason upset, and Kevin Garnett looks like he is about to hand previously undefeated Father Time his first career loss.
You don’t have to like Garnett. You don’t have to like the stream of R-rated language that comes from his mouth after every good play. You don’t have to like the extracurricular activity that borders on dirty. You don’t have to like that he plays the game with virtually no joy.
But you do have to respect Garnett.
You have to respect that he has been by far the best center in the postseason, even though he is playing out of position and is on record as saying he doesn’t like it. You have to respect his unwavering focus on every single possession at both ends of the floor. You have to respect his approach to his profession, which makes LeBron James and Dwyane Wade look like slackers who should apologize for their actions.
“I take a lot of pride in my craft,” Garnett said immediately after another dominant performance in Tuesday’s pivotal Game 5 win in Miami. “I work really hard on my craft every day. I’m a true professional.”
Garnett is 36 years old. He has been going balls-out physically, mentally and psychologically since 1995, when James was in the fifth grade. Including the postseason and international play, he has done it for 17 years, 1,400 games and 55,000 minutes with a level of skill and intensity that is almost frightening. His head should have exploded by now.
At the very least, his body should have broken down. He was supposed to be done three years ago, when a right knee injury ended his season and Boston’s chances of repeating as champion. There have been more whispers over the last year, when his lack of lateral movement and lift were being exposed by younger, quicker players. And there was no way he and fellow old farts Paul Pierce and Ray Allen could make another extended postseason push.
Instead, Garnett is averaging 37.3 minutes, 19.9 points and 10.8 rebounds. He is shooting 50 percent from the field with a lethal inside-outside game. He is the top 15 in blocks and the top 30 in steals. And he leads all playoff performers with 13 double-doubles.
Pierce said Garnett’s postseason performance has been “right up there probably since the first year when he came, and he was 20-10 every night in the playoffs, just dominating.”
It’s actually better. Garnett has nine 20-10 games this postseason, which matches his total from the last four playoffs combined.
“We’re taking advantage of him,” Pierce added. “We’re giving him the ball in the spots where he can score. He’s rebounding, playing good defense. He’s doing everything we’re asking of him.”
Garnett also is doing the stuff he asks of himself. He remains the best screener in the game and only is called for illegal picks because of his commitment to executing the play. He is never on the wrong side of the increased physical nature of the playoffs that separates the men from the boys. And he repeatedly beats younger players down the floor in both directions.
He is defying age better than Just For Men, which in an ironic twist is what the Eastern Conference finals has been all about.
James and Wade excel only when they can play as a matter of convenience. By and large, they are unwilling to push through adversity, rough stuff or anything else that makes basketball more than a stroll down the red carpet.
James has a matchup advantage nearly every time he touches the ball, yet often settles for fadeaway jumpers that have contributed mightily to the justified criticism of his late-game performance. That places a burden on Wade, who gets a pass on his late-game record because he already has a ring but has missed tying, winning or clinching shots three times in this postseason.
Chris Bosh? Yes, he had been out a while. And when he returned Tuesday night, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made sure he was on the bench for most of the time Garnett was on the floor.
So while the Heat whine and complain when things don’t go their way and cower and shrivel in the magnitude of the moment, Garnett mans up better than anybody.
“He’s our life. I mean, he really is,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He just does so many things that don’t have numbers to it. A lot of it is with his voice. He’s in a strange way a calming effect on some of our guys, if you can ever call Kevin that, he is. He’s just been terrific for us.”
So what is Garnett’s secret? He’s not mainlining Oil of Olay or guzzling 5-hour Energy or eating Viagras like they are M&M’s. He is almost always the first player subbed out by Rivers, who gives him two breaks every half instead of one. And he still wraps up his right knee every time he comes to the bench.
Garnett may not like playing center, but it suits him at this point in his career because it reduces how many matchups he has with skilled big men. He has stretched his range to 20 feet, which marginalizes the amount of contact he has to deal with. Rivers has helped by holding very few practices during the postseason, giving Garnett the rest he needs.
And during this unforgiving season of game after game after game, while younger, supposedly more durable players have dropped like flies or given in to the mental and physical demands of the workload, Garnett has gotten stronger and healthier.
“You’re finally seeing a healthy Kevin. He hasn’t been healthy the last couple of years,” Pierce said. “It looks like he’s has healthy legs. He’s playing long minutes. He’s giving everything he can.”
And Garnett, as mentally and physically as tough as they come, continues at his craft without any sense of joy.
“I have no life at this point,” he said earlier in this postseason. “I go home and get treatment, come back in here, study tape, film, no life at all. It is what it is. Whatever’s asked of me, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
After 17 years, that approach is still working very well.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.