"How do you like my facial hair?" (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Imagine Shaq and Kevin Garnett, playing together in their primes. That's what Steve Aschburner tried to do, asking both players what it would have been like playing together in, let's say, 1999. (NBA.com)
"We'd either have eight," O'Neal said, meaning championship rings, "or we'd have had problems. In my opinion, I don't think it would work."
Don't think it would work? But, um, Shaq: You won a championship with Samaki Walker as your starting power forward -- I repeat, Samaki Walker. Wouldn't KG's scoring (and his defense, and his rebounding, and his intensity, and everything else he happens to do better than Walker) have been an upgrade?
For O'Neal, the basketball wouldn't have made sense. Two big bodies, two offensive missions, two clashing games. "He was a guy who demanded the ball all the time," Shaq said, "and he needed it in some of the same spots as myself. Now we complement each other."
Garnett didn't think it would work, either. But his objection was different. Remember how Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and (at least) half of America tore apart Lebron James because he didn't want to win a title by himself? A young KG's mentality was 180 degrees different from Lebron's. He didn't want to win with Shaq, because he wanted to beat him instead.
"First off, Shaq was winning rings," Garnett said the other night. "You chase the guys who are winning it. And Shaq was the most dominant big man of my era. I was chasing him. To get the respect. The value in this is, you dethrone the king. I looked at it like, 'Diesel's winning rings. You've got to dethrone him.' I really thought, with enough personnel, that I really could do that.
"I don't know if that was me being naïve or me just believing in my craft and my team. That's what it is, that's how I went at it."
You can fault Garnett for a lot of things -- his tendency to cuss 24/7, his unending string of trash talk (should I lump that in with his cussing?), or his inability (unwillingness?) to ever truly dominate offensively. But you can't fault his competitive spirit. One gets the feeling KG wakes up with two things on his mind: 1) head-butting his bed stand to prepare for the day, and 2) doing whatever he needs to do in order to move one step closer to another NBA championship.
"We speak now about the fights and the competition and us going at it," Garnett said. "I look back on it, you couldn't tell me when I was going up against him that they were that good. I believed in my craft just like he believed in his.
"The battles you go through are what makes you. The tough skin. ... You can't teach experience. You can't teach what hurts. You can't teach fightin' for something. There's no synthetic feeling for that. You know what I mean? It's not like you can simulate that in practice.
"You fight and you chase something. We're all men here, we've all chased the girls once or twice. Or man. Or whatever your preference is. Then to finally get that date and actually get that relationship and actually go forth to everything that you wish it was, it's very similar to that."
Moving on from tantalizing thoughts about Garnett and Shaq teaming in their prime (I still think it would have worked, mostly because of Garnett's unselfish and versatile game - but it doesn't really matter), I finally get to the matter at hand: the 2010-'11 season.
As Garnett said, "You can't teach experience. You can't teach what hurts." You can't teach what losing in a Game 7 feels like. You can't teach the motivation that derives from that loss. You can't teach the wild desperation of four future Hall-of-Famers on the last legs of their careers, trying to solidify their legacies with another title or two.
There are no more promises in Kevin Garnett's career. As Garnett said, this season could be his last. An NBA lockout could wipe out next year, and that could be the end for Kevin Garnett. There can be no more looking forward to tomorrow. For Garnett and his veteran teammates, the end is near. It's in sight, and approaching with the swiftness of Rondo in transition.
"They're at the point where they don't have anything left to prove," Doc Rivers told Aschburner. But that's not true. For competitors of that magnitude, there's always something to prove.
At this point in their career, the Big Three-Era Celtics' dating days are almost over. But for now, there's still another girl (or two) to chase.