During the last few minutes of Game 6 of Boston's second-round series with Cleveland, poor Kevin Garnett looked like Forrest Gump right after Jenny pulled her top down in her dorm room. On one play, the ball swung to KG at the foul line; no Cav was within 10 feet of him. Strangely, he panicked, thinking about shooting an open J before realizing, Wait, I'm seven feet tall, that would be dumb, and barreling toward the basket to rush a clumsy jump hook. For a former MVP who makes $22 million a year, it was an astoundingly incompetent sequence.
It also wasn't a surprise. Garnett's crunch-time woes have been the dirty little secret of this storybook Celtics season. Sure, he saved the franchise and made the C's relevant again. He's also the reason they might not win the 2008 championship. Put simply, Garnett shrinks from pressure more times than he comes through. The NBA is a simple league to figure out: In a playoff series, the best player prevails unless his supporting cast is significantly inferior to the other team's. So when Boston's best player can't dominate close games against a quality opponent … um, that's a problem.
Fans spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing the mental makeup of their favorite players, so you can only imagine how many hours I've spent thinking about Garnett. After all, I'm the same guy who once wasted an entire afternoon trying to figure out Hickory High's box score in that final game in Hoosiers. (If you care, I had Chitwood down for 30 on 14-of-18 shooting.) The intriguing wrinkle with Garnett is he plays differently down the stretch by not playing differently. Selfless and passionate for 48 minutes a game, eight months a year, he can't raise his game because it's already raised. Like Nigel Tufnel's guitar, he's already up to 11.
Sometimes, when Garnett's adrenaline kicks in during crunch time it's like watching a diabetic in the midst of a sugar rush. His body can't handle it. When he succeeds, he loses his mind, pounding his chest, belting out profanities and hollering at the crowd like a crazy person. When he fails (and it's happened a few times this season), his mistakes are unbelievably amateurish—intentional fouls when the team doesn't need them, taking too many steps on his signature fall-away, that kind of stuff. The pressure gets to him. You can see it. In Game 4 of the first-round series with Atlanta, after a near-altercation with Zaza Pachulia, the camera found KG on the bench and he was practically hyperventilating.
Now, Garnett isn't the only NBA star who has struggled in big moments. Wilt was famous for it. The Mailman choked so many times I once wrote, "You know you're watching ESPN Classic if it's 2 a.m. and Karl Malone looks like he's about to throw up." David Robinson was an extremely nice guy who played like one in big games.
C-Webb passed the basketball like it was a hand grenade in the clutch. Clyde Drexler always seemed like he'd just downed too much caffeine. Even one of my favorite Celtics, Kevin McHale, got the yips. In Game 2 of the 1984 Finals, his legs shook after he missed that free throw before Gerald Henderson's famous steal.
The list of guys who came up short is as endless as the one of those who repeatedly came through in the clutch (Michael Jordan, Sam Jones, Reggie Miller, Dennis Johnson, Robert Horry, Larry Legend … ). The question is, how do you end up on one list or the other? What makes for clutch? Is it part of your DNA, or something that's honed through experience and repetition?
Here's my answer: It's both. One of the most fascinating things about Jordan's career wasn't that he nailed the title-winning shot against Georgetown as a freshman, but that Dean Smith called the play for him. If someone is born with ice water in his veins, you know it. Smith knew it. Then again, get enough reps with anything in life, and you're more likely to succeed. Trying not to sound nervous when I started to do TV and radio a few years ago, I'd overthink and make myself nervous, battling a rush of adrenaline right before my segment started. I've learned to channel that energy now—I can speak in front of large crowds and everything. Why? Because I got my reps.
How far can experience actually get you in matters of clutchness? After Garnett jumped from high school to the NBA, he played eight years without ever getting past the first round. Fellow high schooler Kobe Bryant landed on a talented Lakers team, failing famously as a rookie (remember his hideous air balls that ended the series against the Jazz in 1997?), then getting swept by the '98 Jazz and '99 Spurs. Name me one memorable Kobe moment from his first three springs. You can't. But 28 meaningful playoff games provided him with valuable pressurized situations. By the time the 2000 postseason rolled around, Kobe was asserting himself, capping it off with an MJ moment in Game 4 of the Finals for a championship team.
By contrast, poor Garnett was trapped on lousy and half-decent teams until 2004, when he carried the Timberwolves to the Western Conference finals, submitting an ESPN Classic game of his own against the Kings (32 points, 21 rebounds in Game 7) in the second round. But just when it seemed as if he was getting the hang of clutch, Minnesota imploded, missing the playoffs in its next three seasons with KG. Now he's slightly past his prime. Can you blame him for not being clutch when he never got those reps in his formative years? Probably not. Think of his career like a video game: Spend a ton of time playing Grand Theft Auto, and you're much more likely to complete a mission than some guy who doesn't own a PS3, right?
Fair or unfair, Garnett will always be measured against Tim Duncan, who has already carried the Spurs to four titles. It's easy to forget now that TD had his own blips and stumbles along the way, or that he played in 71 playoff games before famously demolishing the Nets with a 21/20/10 line in the clincher of the 2003 Finals. Wired very much like Garnett—completely selfless, phenomenally competitive, thoughtful as a teammate—Duncan learned to channel his intensity, saving peak performances for when they mattered most. He figured out that there was a crucial difference between a ho-hum January game in Atlanta and a must-win playoff game in LA. He's clearly developed a reliable mental alert: All right, unless I grab 20 rebounds tonight, we're going to lose. Or: If I don't take over this game right now and score every time down the floor, we're cooked.
Bill Russell had that switch. So did MJ, Bird and Magic. Well, Garnett doesn't have it. Like every other Celtics fan, I've been looking for it, waiting for it … and it's just not there. A wonderful all-around player, ultimately he's only as good as his teammates. Even during the emotional Game 7 victory over Cleveland, Garnett was nearly invisible down the stretch. So if we can't find a way to stick him with Kobe, LeBron or someone of that ilk, he's probably not getting a ring unless Paul Pierce has a few more 41-point explosions in him.
And we can think about what might've happened if he'd somehow switched places with Duncan back in 1997 and gotten all those playoff reps. Maybe things would have been different for Kevin Garnett.
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