“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” –Henry David Thoreau
“I ain’t dead yet, mother***er.” –Richard Pryor
Don’t call it a resurgence when you know he’s been here all the while.
It was just last Wednesday when Kevin Garnett had pitched his third gem in four tries, leading the Boston Celtics to a 107-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Garnett had turned in 27 points and 13 rebounds in a mere 30 minutes of action. Over the six preceding days, he had also stood at the front of the Celtics’ Game Six elimination of the Atlanta Hawks (28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks) and their Conference Semifinal kickoff win over the Sixers (29 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks).
Along with Rajon Rondo, Garnett has been Boston’s most important player in these playoffs. He has seven double-doubles in 11 games. He leads the team with averages of 19.3 points and 10.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 52.1 (minimum 15 minutes per game). According to Basketball-Reference, his 1.1 defensive win shares lead the league, as does his defensive rating of 90. His 1.7 total win shares tie with Kevin Durant for second-most in the league, behind LeBron James’ 2.8.
Through Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semis, he had established a PER of 25.5 and a mark of .262 win shares per 48 minutes, which were then the best of his playoff career. Those numbers have fallen off some thanks to a poor showing in Game Four (nine points on three-of-12 shooting and 11 rebounds) and a decent-enough one in Game Five (20 points, eight-of-17, six rebounds). Even so, his current mark of .199 win shares per 48 is the second-highest of his playoff career.
With KG enjoying his most productive playoff run since 2008, when he put up 20.4 and 10.5 on the way to the Celtics’ first NBA Title in 22 years, it seems as good a time as any to celebrate the man with a rundown of the five greatest playoff games of his career.
To put together the list, we used John Hollinger’s Game Score as a starting point. Game Score is an all-in-one statistical shorthand that gives “a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game,” kind of along the lines of Passer Rating in football.
We found 12 games with Game Scores above 25.0. Nine of them were wins, three were losses. In honor of Garnett’s well-publicized prioritization of winning above all else – best expressed by his recent “I would die out here” comment and that one from Doc Rivers where he says KG would gladly ride the bench for an entire game if it meant a team win – we decided that a performance could only be counted amongst Garnett’s best if it led to a victory.
With the three losses thrown out, we proceeded to rank the nine wins in order from highest Game Score to lowest. We assigned each game a point value: nine points to the highest Game Score, one to the lowest. We then added points to each game based on the following criteria:
1) Importance of game. Seven of the nine games either tied a series, broke a series tie, or gave Garnett’s team a series win. The other two brought Garnett’s team to within one game of a series tie. We granted two extra points for series winners, as they were the most critical, an extra point for ties and tie-breakers, and nothing extra for those other two.
2) Burden shouldered. In perhaps the only real controversy on this list, we’ve omitted Garnett’s performance in Game Six of the 2008 NBA Finals, which was certainly “important” in that it helped secure Celtics’ first NBA Title in 22 years. Garnett scored 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, gathered 14 rebounds, and came away with a Game Score of 28.1. We left it out because the Celtics walloped the Lakers by a score of 131-92. Garnett’s 26 points accounted for 19.9 percent of his team’s total. In all of the other games that made the shortlist, Garnett accounted for at least 25 percent of the scoring burden.
When we look back on Game Six of the 2008 Finals, we remember the Celtics, not necessarily Garnett, crushing the Lakers. We feel that for a game to count amongst a player’s very best, it must be fully imprinted with his impact, which is most easily measured by looking at how much of the team’s scoring burden the player took on.
With that in mind, we calculated the percentage of the total team scoring that Garnett accounted for in each game, then assigned another round of point values: nine to the game with the highest percentage, one to the game with the lowest.
After that, we added up all of our point values and then ordered the list from most to least. Click here for a table showing how all nine games ranked out.
Kevin Garnett has played in 116 playoff games. He’s been pretty good in a lot of them. Without further ado, here are the five best.
May 29, 2004 – Western Conference Finals Game 5
Minnesota Timberwolves (2-3) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (3-2)
“What we ask KG to do is remarkable. The only thing I can think of that is similar is what Magic [Johnson] did against Philadelphia [in the 1980 Finals]… He told me at the half that he could go the whole way.” –Flip Saunders
The Numbers: 46:00 minutes, 30 points (10-23 FG, 10-11 FT), 19 rebounds (3 OREB, 16 DREB), 4 assists, 1 block, 1 steal, 27.7 GmSc, 30.6 team scoring percentage.
The Highlights: Garnett only
The Digest: Facing elimination with All-Star point guard Sam Cassell unavailable due to back spasms, the Timberwolves leaned on Garnett harder than ever in what would be their last win of the 2004 playoffs. KG started the game alongside former All-Star Latrell Sprewell, five-points-per-game defensive specialist Trenton Hassell, 27.5-percent-shooting reserve point Darrick Martin, and Michael Olowokandi, whose 2.0 PER in the 2004 playoffs was even lower than the 2.5 that Jermaine “The Main Vein” O’Neal put up in his wretched 2010 playoff performance.
Garnett played for nearly the entire game, taking a single two-minute fourth-quarter breather, and combined with Sprewell to score nearly 60 percent of the Timberwolves’ points. KG led all scorers with 30, all rebounders with 19, and even took time away from posting future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone to run the point in place of Martin and reserve two Fred Hoiberg. Unfortunately, Cassell’s injury would turn out to be too severe for him to return in the next game, which the Timberwolves would go on to lose by six points.
May 14, 2008 – Eastern Conference Semifinals Game Five
Boston Celtics (3-2) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (2-3)
“It’s hard to play this game with one eye, unless you’re a pirate.” –Delonte West
The Numbers: 41:10 minutes, 26 points (12-19 FG, 2-2 FT), 16 rebounds (5 OREB, 11 DREB), 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 30.0 GmSc, 27.1 team scoring percentage.
The Highlights: Game recap
The Digest: Home-court advantage turned out to be critical for the Celtics as they navigated the first two rounds of the 2008 playoffs. Having already beaten the Atlanta Hawks in seven, winning all four at home and losing all three on the road, they were in the process of working the same formula against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They had opened the series by taking two defensive slugfests at home before dropping the next two in Cleveland.
Back in Boston, the Celtics would reclaim the series advantage off a triumvirate of impressive performances from Garnett, Paul Pierce (29 points, seven rebounds) and Rajon Rondo (20 points, 13 assists). KG’s performance would shine just a bit brighter than those of his teammates; his field goal percentage of 63.2 led all participants (minimum five shot attempts), as did his rebounds, offensive rebounds and blocked shots. He was at his best in the second half, in which his 14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks helped turn a 14-point second-quarter deficit into a 12-point fourth-quarter lead.
April 22, 2003 – Western Conference Quarterfinals Game Two
Minnesota Timberwolves (1-1) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (1-1)
“They have to stab us, cut our heart out, put us in the morgue. We’re not going to lay down. We are a team full of pride and we have a lot of character on this team. They’re going to have to cut our throats, rip our tongues out.” –Kevin Garnett
The Numbers: 43:00 minutes, 35 points (15-21 FG, 4-6 FT), 20 rebounds (1 OREB, 19 DREB), 7 assists, 1 block, 2 steals, 36.3 GmSc, 29.4 team scoring percentage.
The Highlights: Garnett only
The Digest: It’s sort of mind-boggling to look back at some of the teams that Kevin Garnett played for at the height of his powers. The 2004 Timberwolves finished the season with the best record in the Western Conference and advanced to the sixth game of the Conference Finals, despite running out a roster that featured three players – Garnett, Cassell, and Wally Szczerbiak – who posted a PER of 15.0 or above. Since PER normalizes across all seasons, the annual league-average is 15.0 (injuries limited Szczerbiak to only 28 regular season games, by the way). No Western Conference team – not even the last-place, 28-54 Los Angeles Clippers – rostered as few average or above-average players.
The 2003 edition did not rate quite as poorly in this department. If we throw out Reggie Slater, who put up a PER of 19.2, but disqualifies as he averaged a mere 5.4 minutes over the course of 26 games played, these Timberwolves featured five above-average players. Their names were Kevin Garnett (26.4), Wally Szczerbiak (17.3), Gary Trent (15.9), Rod Strickland (15.4) and Troy Hudson (15.2). Szczerbiak missed 30 games due to injury. Strickland played in only 47 and was two years from retirement. Trent averaged 15 minutes off the bench and was one year from retirement. Garnett and Hudson were one and two on the team in minutes played; third, fourth and fifth were Rasho Nesterovic, Anthony Peeler and Kendall Gill, who had an average PER of 12.1. On paper, this was not a very good team.
And yet, they finished the season with the fourth-best record in a heavy-hitting Western Conference that held 11 of the 15 best teams in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System.
How did they do it? By frequently turning to Kevin Garnett for performances like the one he supplied in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Garnett’s Game Score of 36.3 and point total of 35 would be the highest of his playoff career. His seven assists and 71.4 field goal percentage would be the highest of the games we shortlisted. Game Two continues to stand today as Garnett’s most prolific, statistically well-rounded playoff performance yet.
May 10, 2012 – Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game Six
Boston Celtics (4-2) vs. Atlanta Hawks (2-4)
“I really go at my craft and take it very seriously. … I always have, since ’95, since I’ve been able to come into this league, and it’s almost like you guys are shocked. Like this ain’t what I do every day, like this ain’t what I was made for.” –Kevin Garnett
The Numbers: 38:32 minutes, 28 points (10-19 FG, 8-10 FT), 14 rebounds (4 OREB, 10 DREB), 2 assists, 5 blocks, 3 steals, 30.2 GmSc, 33.7 team scoring percentage.
The Highlights: Garnett only
The Digest: Entering Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the odds appeared to be slowly stacking up against the Boston Celtics. Though they held a three-games-to-two series advantage over the Atlanta Hawks, they seemed to have lost some of their momentum in the smoldering wreckage of Game Five’s heartbreaking one-point loss. On subsequent possessions, they had air-balled the go-ahead jump shot, and then turned an improbable steal of an inbounding pass into a lost opportunity, failing to get a shot up before the final buzzer sounded.
Furthermore, the injury bug had spread far and wide. Between Paul Pierce (knee), Avery Bradley (shoulder), Ray Allen (ankle), Mickael Pietrus (hamstring) and Greg Stiemsma (foot), the Celtics were the walking wounded of the 2012 playoffs. It seemed there was seldom a lineup combination used in which four of the five players weren’t bandaged or wrapped like a lost Civil War company.
The Hawks, meanwhile, only appeared to be getting stronger, having recently seen the return of All-Star center Al Horford, who had missed most of the regular season with a torn pectoral muscle. Horford had looked sharp in his return, particularly in Game Five, when he turned in 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in 41 very active minutes. With a potential Game Seven scheduled to take place in Atlanta, Game Six felt like a do or die for the C’s.
And so, as the Minnesota Timberwolves had done so often all those years ago, the Boston Celtics turned to Kevin Garnett to carry the load. Garnett responded with a soul-scorching fury, barking madly all the while as he ravaged the Hawks for 28 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. Those numbers led all participants, while his field goal percentage of 52.6 was the high-water mark for the C’s (minimum five shot attempts).
May 19, 2004 – Western Conference Semifinals Game Seven
Minnesota Timberwolves (4-3) vs. Sacramento Kings (3-4)
“This is Game 7, man. This is it. This is for all the marbles. I’m sitting in the house, I’m loading up the pump, I’m loading up the Uzi. I’ve got a couple M16s, a couple nines, a couple joints with some silencers on ‘em. I’m just loading up clips. A couple grenades. I’ve got a missile launcher with a couple, you know, missiles. I’m ready for war.” –Kevin Garnett
“KG is probably my favorite player in the league.” –Chris Webber
The Numbers: 46:00 minutes, 32 points (12-23 FG, 7-11 FT), 21 rebounds (1 OREB, 20 DREB), 2 assists, 5 blocks, 4 steals, 32.3 GmSc, 38.6 team scoring percentage.
The Highlights: Garnett only
The Digest: Garnett was at his absolute best when the stakes were absolutely the highest: a Game Seven against a Sacramento Kings team that had just torched them with 104 points on the way to a 17-point Game Six walloping.
Garnett was the league’s MVP in 2004. He had won the award by very nearly single-handedly taking his Timberwolves to heights they had never reached before, nor have since. Their record of 58-24 stands as the best mark in franchise history, as does their defensive rating of 99.7. They had never made it as far as the Western Conference Semis, and it will likely be a good few years before they make it that far again.
Now facing elimination with All-Star point guard Sam Cassell dealing with a preposterous array of injuries (hip, back, a ruptured ear drum) that would eventually render him unplayable, the Timberwolves would need Garnett to push the limits of what he had to offer to their breaking point if they hoped to advance. Garnett would do exactly that, scoring nearly 40 percent of his team’s points on a night when only four other Timberwolves managed to score at all. He gathered 21 rebounds on a night when no one else on either team managed 10. He blocked five shots, including one that he simply leapt up and snatched one-handed out of the air. He beat the shot clock with a three-pointer, man – a three-pointer. It was his 28th birthday.
Also, before the game, he gave us what stands to this day as the greatest basketball-as-war metaphor ever conceived.