We've discussed Kevin Garnett and whether or not he is fully recovered from his knee injury repeatedly and at length on this blog. In fact, I think Jeff put a moratorium on discussing it at one point (or was that KG himself?) [Editor's note: yeah, that was KG, not me. Knock yourselves out.] Without delving too deeply back into that subject, the numbers tell us that, while he will probably never go back to being the player he was when he won an MVP award in his late-twenties, he has been putting up similar numbers to last year and in recent weeks, has even been approaching the numbers he put up in his first season in Boston.
However, I wanted to talk about a strange apparent side effect from the off-season surgery that nobody seems to be talking about. When did KG become so clutch?
Remember the 2008 playoffs? The Celtics couldn't win a close game and Garnett came under fire for "disappearing" down the stretch (offensively, at least). He came up big with a couple of late jumpers and the game winning lay-up with 21.4 seconds remaining in Game One against the Cavs and got the roll on a short turnaround late in Game Four's comeback win in the finals, but other than that, he more often than not did not produce down the stretch in close games and those two games were highlighted as the exceptions that proved the rule.
Garnett was so intense, so 100-miles-per-hour-at-all-times, that it seemed like when they reached the last few minutes of a tight game, either he was spent, or he didn't have another level to take it to, unlike everybody else. Maybe he was even affected by nerves as the Celtics drew closer and closer to the title.
In the end, it didn't matter. The Celtics had plenty of other go-to options down the stretch and Garnett's play was pivotal in getting the Celtics to that position, almost like a starting pitcher going seven strong innings and then getting his bullpen to finish the job. However, you couldn't help but wonder if the potential of this team could be even greater if he was more of an offensive threat down the stretch.
Fast forward to this season and, in particular, the Knicks games at MSG on November 22nd. With the game in the balance in the fourth quarter, exactly the time where Garnett's reputation would have us believe that he would be a shrinking violet, Garnett was 1-for-10 and, at that stage, was shooting 47.6% on the season. Suddenly, with the pressure on and the Celtics trailing by six, he knocked down a jumper to cut the lead to four. A couple of minutes later, he knocked down a pair of free throws to put Boston up by one. With the scores tied and 1:07 to go, he made another jumper to give Boston the lead. Finally, in overtime, his buzzer beater from the top of the key gave the Celtics a 107-105 win.
But that's just one game, right? Not necessarily. Since that game a pattern is starting to form:
November 25th - Celtics lead the Sixers by six with 3:03 to go. Garnett's lay-up is good to make it an eight point game and they hold on to win 113-110.
November 29th - Celtics lead by one with 2:12 to go. Garnett's jumper is good to push the lead out to three. Later, up by four, he ices the game with another jumper with 38.3 seconds to go.
December 3rd - San Antonio has just pulled within six with under five and a half minutes to go. With the shot clock winding down, Garnett's running hook shot makes the lead eight again and proves to be the crucial bucket as a low scoring finish sees the Celtics only hit one more shot en route to a 90-83 win.
December 8th - With the Bucks within five, Garnett hits a short jumper with 2:12 to go. He later ices the game with a jumper with 38 seconds remaining and the Celtics go on to win 98-89.
December 10th - With the Celtics up by one and 4:01 to go, Garnett nails a jumper to keep Boston up by three. They go on to win 104-102.
December 14th - With the Celtics clinging to a two point lead, Garnett's jumper with 1:20 to go is good and they hang on to win 110-105.
Sure, none of these were game winners, but all of them were clutch shots, late in ballgames that the Celtics could have lost if he had missed. This hasn't happened with such regularity since he arrived in Boston.
Of course, Garnett has been on fire generally, not just in the clutch, ever since that fourth quarter at MSG, shooting an incredible 72% since then and averaging 18.1 points per game, but has the clutch play actually been there all season? Is it possible that when he went in to get his wheel fixed, that they actually replaced his clutch too, without telling us?
Prior to that Knicks game, there were only five games this season that were not decided by a double-digit margin, so let's look at those.
They won two: On opening night, with the Celtics up six against the Cavs, Garnett's jumper with 2:43 to go was good, pushing the Celtics to a six point win. Against the Timberwolves, the Celtics won by two and Garnett had the crucial play on defense, tying up Corey Brewer to preserve the win, although he didn't score in the fourth quarter. (You may recall he had a similar clutch defensive play against Sebastian Telfair, when the teams met in Boston two years ago.)
Even in two of the three close losses that they had (to the Suns and the Magic), Garnett had a couple of hoops in the fourth quarter of each game as the Celtics kept it close, so the Celtics do seem to be getting a pattern of clutch offensive play from their talismanic defensive leader.
I wondered if maybe the fact that they've been careful with him has meant that he played fewer minutes and therefore had more reserves in the tank, but he's been playing more or less the same number of minutes as he has since he arrived in Boston. He did average 38 minutes in the 2008 playoffs though, so fatigue could be one reason for some of his struggles down the stretch at that time (which is where this reputation was partly founded). Could it just be that he is playing with more freedom emotionally, now that he has a title to his name? Or maybe that knee operation has improved his overall level of play and this is paying dividends in crunch time.
Perhaps even more feasibly, maybe the reputation he has earned was never true in the first place. The myth that Garnett isn't clutch was debunked here before the season (and Garnett's repeated examples of clutch play) even began.
The reputation persists though. Garnett's has apparently not yet earned (back?) the reputation as a clutch player. Liam Martin's article for NESN.com stated that
Boston has three [options in clutch time]: Pierce from the elbow, Ray from 3 or Rondo on the drive.
Maybe we can make that four. (Maybe even five when we can finally say "Baby Got Back").
Whatever the reason, Garnett is delivering timely baskets for this team that have been crucial, as they have won seven of the eleven games in this winning streak by fewer than ten points and he has come up big in every single one of them.
Not bad for a fourth option.