Kevin Garnett grinding at higher gear

BOSTON -- It was a meaningless play -- to everyone but Kevin Garnett. The Celtics led by 12 in the closing seconds of Wednesday night's game against Utah and the Jazz had a chance for one final basket before the buzzer.

Garnett would not allow himself to let that happen. Gordon Hayward got away for what looked like an easy layup, but Garnett, rambling down the floor in pursuit, got close enough to alter the shot. The ball bounced away, the horn sounded, and the Celtics had themselves a 94-82 victory.

"You know with KG, he is going to fight to the end. It was a good defensive play," Hayward said. "He's a physical guy, a competitor and you have to make sure you bring your A-game when you play against him."

Garnett had his A-game Wednesday night. He had a game-high 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists and a blocked shot. It was his 16th double-double of the season. The Celtics moved back into a tie with Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead and improved to 13-5 since the All-Star break.

That last statistic is among the best marks in the NBA and it has come with Garnett playing the center position, something he alleges to detest. No matter. The team is winning. End of discussion.

"Kevin's been amazing," coach Doc Rivers said after the victory over Utah, one which featured Garnett and Al Jefferson sharing a little tough love (more on that later). "I was joking, but it's true. If you had an All-Star vote at the center spot in the league right now, he'd be right up there because that's what he has been since the break. He's been a (center) and he's been terrific. But don't tell him that!"

There has been a noticeable upgrade in Garnett's game since the All-Star break. Prior to then, he averaged 14.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and shot 50.3 percent from the field. Since the break, he's averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and shooting better than 52 percent from the field. He's had three games of 20 or more points in the four games that Ray Allen has missed due to a sore right ankle.

Both Rivers and GM Danny Ainge said Garnett benefitted from the rest he was able to get over the All-Star weekend. Garnett also missed a couple games before the break for personal reasons. The breaks appear to have left him refreshed and rejuvenated while playing some of the best basketball since his first season with the Celtics.

"He's been playing like that a lot since the second half of the season," said Paul Pierce, who had 20 points. "He's doing it at both ends of the court. It really is inspiring to the teammates when he has it going like that at both ends of the court. We kind of feed off his energy."

Asked about his play since the All-Star break, Garnett went on one of his stream-of-consciousness rants that touched on hair color, perceived slights in the media and, of course, age. He referred to himself as "30-something." He turns 36 in May.

"The first half of the season wasn't the most pleasurable for us," he said. "I thought I could be better and I've been working towards that. I've been giving myself a true analysis in the mirror, telling myself what I can do better. I've been going towards that. I know there are some things I can get better at and I'm trying to do that."

While he did not say he felt fresher, he did say he was "motivated" by both the unspecified slights and by the prospect of going up against players like Jefferson.

"It doesn't take much to motivate me," Garnett said. "Playing against younger talent that's supposed to be prolific and supposed to be above average. But I'm old, old. But like I said, it doesn't take much to motivate me."

The two were traded for each other back in the summer of 2007 and Garnett immediately led the Celtics to the NBA title. Jefferson, meanwhile, is (a) still waiting for his first victory in Boston since then and (b) still waiting to appear in a playoff game since the trade.

The two were hit with double technicals in the fourth quarter after getting tangled up. It's clear from listening to Jefferson that he is no fan of the Big Ticket.

"He's been around a long time," Jefferson said of Garnett, adding he gets bored by listening to Garnett's constant yapping. "I think he likes to listen to himself speak. That's what that's all about. He's a very talented player. I might not like him, but I respect him. He made a way for me coming out of high school."

Why doesn't he like Garnett?

"He's just ... Kevin. I'm not going to tell you nothing that you haven't already heard," Jefferson said. "I don't mind the talking. But when you're throwing elbows and cheap shots at me, that, to me, is a little unprofessional, a coward move. It's not that I don't like him personally. I don't even know him personally. He just battles. That's one thing I can say about KG. He's going to do what it takes to win and at the end of the day, you gotta respect him for that."

Jefferson isn't the only one who can't stand the way Garnett plays. Joakim Noah is another (which makes you crave for a Celtics-Bulls playoff series). DeMarcus Cousins is on the list as well. Garnett also is quick to dismiss others; he called Atlanta's Jeff Teague "a nobody" last week.

Basically, if he's on your team, you like him. You know you are always going to get passion and energy from Garnett. You know you're never going to get the kind of "what is going on with him?" kind of game you occasionally get from Rajon Rondo.

With Garnett, what you see is what you get. And the Celtics like what they're seeing lately.