Celtics fans salute Kevin Garnett, maybe for the final time

BOSTON -- The attempt to coax Kevin Garnett onto the TD Garden floor -- maybe for the final time in his NBA career -- started almost immediately. Even with the Minnesota Timberwolves giving Garnett planned rest on the second night of a back-to-back, fans at Garnett's former home court started a booming "We want KG!" chant midway through the first quarter in hopes it might convince Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell to insert Garnett, who was active and dressed for game action.

The chant came back multiple times over the course of the night, seemingly growing in intensity each time. But even as the Celtics pulled away en route to a 113-99 win, Mitchell wouldn't budge. So, late in the fourth quarter, the chant morphed to "Thank you, KG!" with the Garden crowd showing its appreciation for a man who helped deliver a 17th championship banner during his six memory-filled seasons in Boston.

Alas, it was clear the crowd wanted more. And while Celtics coach Brad Stevens later would suggest he only called a late-game timeout to substitute, we'll choose to believe he knew the chills-inspiring moment that was about to unfold with little more than a minute to play.

When the buzzer sounded to start the 20-second timeout, the throbbing and familiar bass of the Bee Gee's "You Should Be Dancing" blared and Garnett's beloved Gino Time clip began to play on the video board.

The youngsters on the Timberwolves' roster looked in bewilderment as Garnett roamed out onto the Garden floor and immediately pointed at the video. The Garden went into delirium, recalling the heyday of the Big Three era when Garnett would celebrate every lopsided win in similar joyful fashion. Garnett pointed once to Gino, then turned to acknowledge the ovation from a crowd that was hoping for this moment.

Garnett looked back up at the video with a childlike smile, maybe the only time in his career he has been happy at the end of a loss. He raised his fist to acknowledge the smooth-dancing bearded man in the Gino Vannelli T-shirt who he helped make an icon here, just as he did so many times during Boston's 2008 title season, then touched his heart and pointed again to the crowd.

A "KG! KG! KG!" chant broke out and the arena's game-operations staff cut the music to the video in order to let it resonate while the open spot on the banner where Garnett's No. 5 someday will hang above the Garden floor was shown on the video board.

Much like on the night in January 2014 when he first returned with the Brooklyn Nets and had to hide his emotions as a tribute video ran during the game, Garnett eased back into his seat on the bench, wiped his eyes and bowed his head while raising his hands in acknowledgement one last time.

Later, as the Timberwolves locker room emptied, Garnett wandered into the hallway where a mob of reporters was waiting for him. He stopped to greet a bunch of Celtics staffers before entering the fray of cameras and microphones.

"Boston’s always been a special place in my heart and probably always will," Garnett said. "Tonight, although the outcome wasn’t the way I wanted it to be, it was a great homecoming. It felt really good to be in the building."

Garnett, who had played only 10 minutes in Sunday's win over the Nets, admitted it was tough not to be able to come back against the Celtics but said his body can't quite hold up on consecutive nights any more, even if, at times this season, he's "making 39 look like 25 these days."

But Garnett heard all the chants. And they actually made him a bit nervous.

"I really wanted [the fans] to stop that because I didn’t know if Sam was going to actually put me in," Garnett said. "I was like, 'Please, please!' But it was cool. Like I said, the unconditional appreciation is overwhelming. So thank [Boston fans] for that. I appreciate that."

And he appreciated maybe one final dance with Gino.

"[Gino] was like the cherry on top for me, you know?" Garnett said. "My teammates were looking at me like, ‘What is this?’ I was like, 'I’ll explain later.' So thank you for whoever put the Gino on. I know my guys here put it on for me, so I appreciate that."

Garnett talked about being the veteran guide on a young Timberwolves squad and said his teammates are keeping him young at heart. But when he was asked if this might have been his final visit to the Garden, a question that might have tipped whether this is his final NBA season, Garnett wouldn't take the bait.

"I just want to say thank you all for all the appreciation tonight," Garnett said, starting to remove himself from the fray. "I’m out of here, man. On that note, I’m exiting. I’ll see you guys later. Let me out of here. I’ll see you guys later. Thank you all, man. I appreciate you, Boston. See how you just blew that whole thing, right? We outta here."

With that, Garnett found longtime Celtics PR man Jeff Twiss, whom he affectionately calls Twister, and sneaked off toward an elevator in the rear of the building and into the Boston night.

Inside the Celtics locker room, only two players remain from Garnett's time in Boston: Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger (the latter didn't play Monday because of back spasms). But the moment clearly resonated with Boston's own young roster.

"Amazing. Loved it," Celtics swingman Jae Crowder said. "That’s what it’s all about, paying respect to a legend, so I love it."

Even the unflappable Stevens found himself swept up. Stevens technically was Garnett’s coach for nine days, the span of time between when Stevens was hired in July 2013 and when the Celtics formally executed the blockbuster swap with the Nets. The deal, however, had been agreed to on draft night in late June, and Stevens knew full well that Garnett would not be on the roster he was inheriting.

Before Monday's game, Stevens fondly recalled crossing paths with Garnett on the AAU circuit when both were just 17. Stevens remembers one tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, in particular because he was a benchwarmer for his team and caught himself staring at Garnett in action on a nearby court.

Stevens often has acknowledged the legacy that Garnett left in Boston and noted how the players and staffers that were here for Garnett's tenure often gush about his impact.

So Stevens didn't mind that, on a night a shorthanded Boston squad snapped a three-game losing streak with a solid victory, the fans chanted loudest for a player on the visiting sideline who logged a DNP.

“Awesome. I think this is one of the great things about getting a chance to coach the Boston Celtics," Stevens said. "Being in the position where we’re really building and growing and we will hopefully continue be in that good direction for a long time, just getting better every day, because those guys were so good before this.

“And what [Garnett and the Big Three] were able to accomplish, how they came together quickly, won a championship, and what that guy meant to that team and to the spirit of the organization at that time, from everything that I’ve been told, is quite impressive.

“So I was not chanting loudly, but maybe under my breath as well."