BOSTON -- He has always brought attitude and intensity, all spit and screams and swears and swagger, yet for all Kevin Garnett's histrionics, he has been the most reluctant scoring superstar the Boston Celtics have ever had.
Former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders used to claim that KG had the highest shooting percentage of any player in the league from the elbow, "but you'd never know that because Kevin insisted on passing the ball."
Current Celtics coach Doc Rivers has spent the better part of his five seasons with Garnett imploring him to be more selfish, take more shots, impose his offensive will on the game.
Many times, his pleas have gone for naught. Garnett preferred to stamp his imprint on the less-heralded end of the floor. He altered the Celtics' culture when he arrived in Boston, emphasizing team defense, team chemistry, a team approach.
Once in a while, he backed that up with some healthy scoring numbers. And yet, even as he seized ownership of Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night, there were times when he was deep in the post with a high-percentage scoring chance and still chose to move the ball along.
"We have a saying around here," said Rivers. "If a guy is smaller than you, they're not going to grow."
In other words: Shoot the ball!
He did. He finally did. Garnett and his 19 shots are the reason the Celtics eked out an 83-80 win that finally enabled them to eliminate a persistent Atlanta Hawks team and move on to a second-round date with the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.
With Paul Pierce laboring due to his sprained left knee and Ray Allen so bothered by his balky, bone-spur-infested ankle that he actually missed two free throws, KG needed to be willing to climb into the Way Back Machine and pull out a vintage, dominant performance reminiscent of his MVP season in 2003-04, when he averaged 24.2 points -- and 19 shots -- a night.
When Game 6 was over and KG had checked out with a game-high 28 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, a game-high five blocks and a game-high three steals, he immediately took aim at Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr., who had called KG a "dirty player" earlier in the week.
"I want to say thank you to their owner for giving me some extra gas tonight," KG declared. "My only advice to him is next time he opens his mouth, actually know what you are talking about -- X's and O's versus checkbooks and bottom lines."
Garnett spent the better part of his 40 minutes stopping the bleeding each and every time Atlanta tried to seize momentum of the game.
It was true after the Hawks staked themselves a 5-0 lead only to watch Garnett follow a Pierce miss for a three-point play. It was true again in the second quarter when a six-point Atlanta lead (31-25) evaporated after Boston ripped off a 16-0 run ignited by -- who else? -- KG, converting on a turnaround out of a double-team.
"That's the best I've seen Kevin play in three years," lauded Atlanta boss Dominique Wilkins. "The thing about Kevin that bothers our guys is his length. It enables him to take that turnaround and shoot over people.
"I know people say he's a reluctant scorer. Well, he sure wasn't reluctant tonight."
With the Celtics clinging to a four-point lead after three, it was Garnett who accounted for six of Boston's first seven points in the fourth quarter, which pushed the Celtics lead to nine (74-65) with 8:36 left. Two minutes later, or about the time Doc Rivers usually yanks KG for a blow, No. 5 looked expectantly to the bench for his signal.
"I'm going to confess, I wasn't going to take him out until he looked at me and said, 'Please -- I need a blow,'" said Rivers.
"Hell, I'm human, too," KG shrugged. "I get tired. Sometimes it's hard for Doc to understand that."
The coach understands, all right, but he also knows what happens when the epicenter of his core retreats to the sideline. Things tend to go bad.
While KG caught his breath, Atlanta ripped off a 10-2 run while the suddenly rudderless Boston offense stumbled about waiting for their go-to guy to return. By the time he did, it was a one-point game.
Meanwhile Pierce, the team's resident professional scorer, was abysmal on the offensive end, twice coughing the ball up on horrendous passes. His knee was clearly hampering him, which begged the question: Did Doc consider giving Pierce the hook down the stretch?
"I did think about it," Rivers confessed in a quiet moment after the game, "but I kept him on the floor because of his presence. You have to account for him. They were zoning us up all over the place, and even though I went away from Paul [on our offensive sets], I felt he still had value for us."
Indeed, it was Pierce's layup that cut Atlanta's lead to one with 2:06 to play, and Pierce who served as the ideal decoy on the biggest bucket of the night -- a KG turnaround with 30 seconds left that pushed Boston ahead for good.
"That last play, it was a misdirection for Paul," Rivers said. "They had to honor him. They had to respect him."
Pierce, who checked out with seven assists, a number of them to Garnett, said his teammate's offensive assault was "beautiful to watch and beautiful to be a part of."
As he left the Garden, Pierce admitted he was "completely exhausted" and feeling some pain.
"But I'll be back for the next one," he promised.
They all will. Allen (1-of-7 from the 3-point line) will get treatment, and maybe he will regain some of the lift that abandoned him in this game.
Pierce will recharge his batteries after logging a team-high 40 minutes. In spite of his uneven performance, he still submitted 18 points and five rebounds.
Garnett played 39 minutes and brushed aside any suggestions he was tired. Asked to provide some perspective on his amazing personal run over these final months of the NBA season, KG said, "You know, I don't want to come off kind of wrong, but I really go at my craft and take it very seriously. ... I always have, since '95, since I've been able to come into this league, and it's almost like you guys are shocked. Like this ain't what I do every day, like this ain't what I was made for. It comes off as disrespectful at times."
Most nights, KG doesn't care to say a whole lot, but Thursday night he scolded the assembled media for calling him old, for acting shocked that he could drop 28 on the Hawks, for failing to understand the game of basketball was a rhythm game, a "chemistry game."
The spit and the swagger were intact. The stat sheet was stacked.
The Celtics have moved on, and they have their reluctant superstar to thank for it.