Garnett leads Celtics to first preseason win

ROME -- The Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett era began 4,000 miles from home Saturday, in a fashionable green, white and red-emblazoned uni and an unfamiliar introduction from a Roman announcer.

"Numero cinque, Kevin Garnett."

The Circus Maximus, where Roman emperors used to watch chariot races, is a few short kilometers from the sold-out 11,118-seat PalaLottomatica arena where Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen played their first competitive basketball together, in an 89-85 win over the Toronto Raptors as part of the NBA's Europe Live preseason tour.

And, given the hype that has followed the "big three" every step of the way around Rome this week, the fact that the world's "Greatest Circus" is close at hand somehow seems appropriate.

Superfan Spike Lee was even on hand to give the event an added stamp of authenticity, but, after all the hype could finally be stripped away, the real question was how would one of the emperors -- a Nero or a Claudius -- have reacted if this were gladiatorial combat back in ancient times?

Did KG and the Celtics deserve a thumbs-up (a sign that a beaten gladiator would be allowed to survive) or a thumbs-down (the opposite) after working up their first real sweat since coming together this offseason?

How does 19 points, 17 rebounds and five steals in 32 minutes sound for Garnett? Or 21 points, four boards and three steals in 33 minutes for Pierce?

Even Allen, the one of the big three to misfire with his 4-of-13 night featuring only 1-of-7 from 3-point range, brought some added value to the C's offense, as coach Doc Rivers pointed out.

"Even when he doesn't have a good shooting night, Ray spreads the floor," Rivers said. "And that is of such big value. He's capable at any time of getting it, and that fear is why the floor is spread so well, and the space he allows has a value on the floor."

In short, even if one of the big three is having a bad night, Allen's rep still means teams have to respect him and, worse yet for opponents, all the time, the law of averages dictate that his two colleagues will be firing away at their All-Star-caliber of play.

As the Raptors' own All-Star Chris Bosh put it: "The Celtics are going to be tough, especially when they get their post game going.

"They're easy to defend if they are stagnant, but when they are moving around, throwing the ball into KG and Paul Pierce, they have guys like Eddie House and Ray Allen on the weak side ready to shoot, it makes it tough.

"To have success against them, you are going to have to play great one-on-one defense against them. But it's tough to ask that of everybody when you're guarding three All-Stars. It's going to take a good scouting report to compete against them."

Even more so if the big three manage to maintain the intensity and enthusiasm they showed during the three-plus quarters in which they were involved in the thick of the action. As preseason games go, this was NBA Finals Game 7 stuff, bodies flying after loose balls, benches leaping to their feet at dunks and big 3s. All right, the coaches reverted to preseason form late in the game by throwing in the scrubs -- so many that the European box scores could not keep up because they have room for only 12 names -- but for much of the contest, this was interesting and intense stuff.

"Doc told us we weren't going to play a lot of minutes tonight," Garnett said. "So he wanted us to go really hard, extremely hard, and play as if it was a real game. It was a hot gym, a great atmosphere for a game of basketball, and I just came out with a lot of energy."

The atmosphere here was the other key difference from your average exhibition game. Garnett might hear a louder cheer when his name is announced before the season opener at home against the Washington Wizards in a little less than four weeks, but the roar from the capacity Roman crowd that greeted his name Saturday will come a close second.

The Italians have been won over by both sets of players during the weeklong training camp stint, and despite suggestions that hometown boy Andrea Bargnani might be afforded an awkward welcome because of an uneasy relationship with the local media and some subpar showings for the national team, he was welcomed like a long-lost son.

More importantly for the Raptors and their hopes of defending the Atlantic Division title, the few minutes Bargnani put in before his home crowd were of the highest quality.

After Garnett had beaten the young Italian with an early, devastating baseline move and dunk, drawing a foul and sinking the and-1 in the process, Bargnani came straight back at his tormentor on the next possession and drained a long 2-pointer.

Bargnani went on to finish with 13 points, on 4-of-6 shooting, in his 13 minutes of action before collecting a fourth foul and returning to the bench. It was a major mistake by Raptors coach Sam Mitchell not to leave him in the game, given that both coaches had decided not to leave starters in late in the action.

"I know what Andrea is going to do and where he is at," Mitchell said. "So I am not concerned about him. But the only thing I'm disappointed in is after Andrea picked up his fourth foul, I should have probably left him out there, knowing I wasn't going to put him back in later."

Still, despite some negative local press, Bargnani will be relieved to have come through his week of being under such an intense spotlight suffering from nothing more serious than some fatigue and the memory of one of the most tedious NBA events in the history of sport -- a function at the office of the mayor of Rome on Friday that sent Garnett to sleep and had other witnesses fleeing for the exits.

Courtside with Spike Lee

You know NBA Europe Live, and the Boston bandwagon, is in good shape when superfan Spike Lee turns up courtside.

The movie director, in Rome working on his latest film project, is a close friend of Ray Allen's but is better known, even to European fans, for his fanatical allegiance to the New York Knicks.

Nevertheless, Lee was not going to pass on the chance of seeing an NBA game, even a preseason one, as the new-look Celtics faced the Raptors at the PalaLottomatica on Saturday.

"Who do you want to win tonight? Toronto, because of all their European players?" one Italian journalist asked.

"The New York Knicks," came Lee's deadpan reply.

As for the Celtics, "They got three guys, three guys!" said Lee in a refrain that is bound to be heard repeatedly around the NBA this season.

"Look, I don't like the Celtics. But it's good for the league if Boston is good, New York is good, the Lakers are good.

"Me and Ray Allen talk a lot, I had lunch with [Raptors GM] Wayne Embry today. Ray and everybody around the Celtics is excited about the new season."

-- Ian Whittell

"I'm just impressed he came here and was so effective," said Bosh of his young teammate's heavy itinerary this week. "Given his schedule yesterday. I had an appearance with him yesterday, but I was back in the hotel by 4 p.m. and he was still out there running around. I know it's been tough for him being in his home country with the attention he is expected to give the media. Then to ask him to come out here and perform well in the first preseason game is really tough for him."

Bargnani was not the only star to run into foul trouble; Garnett also picked up his fourth foul in the third period (note to NBA refs: It's not a smart move forcing the two most popular players out of a European exhibition game by giving them fourth fouls so early).

But that was the only minor complaint on the night for KG, who underlined his position as one of the most popular global figures in the sport in his first tour of duty in Celtics colors (colors supplemented, as were Toronto's, with green, red and white trimmings for the Italian national flag).

Although Mitchell complained -- a little critically, it should be said -- that Bosh appeared rusty, the same could not be said of Garnett or the other constituent parts of the big three. Maybe it is a sign of things to come, but it was also interesting to see the extent to which the trio shared the Celtics' offensive load. All three played 31 or 32 minutes, and Garnett took 16 shots to Pierce and Allen's 13 each … a total of 42 of Boston's 76 shots.

"Ray was telling P. [Pierce] and myself to be aggressive from the off," Garnett said. "One of the biggest things for us is to keep out of each other's way, and we came out and did that. Whether we were diving on the floor for loose balls or being aggressive all round, I pretty much felt I had a lot of energy tonight to do that, so I did."

Nevertheless, a consensus already has been reached on this Celtics team that offense -- and the way in which the triumvirate shares it out -- is unlikely to be the key factor behind whether this is a successful season in Boston. It's not a Roman proverb, but it should be: Look after the defense and the offense will look after itself.

"I think our whole focus is going to be on the defensive end," Pierce said. "We have so many weapons on offense, and the great thing about it is we play unselfish and we're able to move the ball. This was the best first preseason game I've had since I came to the club. We showed how unselfish we can be, what we can do. But our main goal is defense. If we can do that, then we can go a long way."

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times.