He is so fiercely private, shifting the same passion he displays on the court to protect his personal feelings and opinions, that it is a special occasion when he unleashes, as he did following a masterful performance in the clinching Game 6 against the Hawks.
Kevin Garnett’s brilliance on the court is unquestioned, and his ability to turn insults and putdowns into motivation is why he remains not only relevant, but dominant (in stretches) at age 35.
It is a chore for the Celtics’ public relations staff to coerce Garnett to speak on the playoff podium, the place where only superstars appear. Garnett obviously still considers himself a superstar, but he is resistant to appear in such a public forum.
So when Garnett agreed to join Rajon Rondo Thursday night, he obviously had something on his mind. He basked in the 28-point, 14-rebound performance that saved the Celtics from traveling to Atlanta for Game 7, extending the Big Three era at least another series.
Polishing off Josh Smith and Al Horford wasn’t enough, he took on an even bigger Hawk in co-owner Michael Gearon Jr., who had called Garnett the “dirtiest guy in the league’’ and had said the Celtics “are old’’ and were receiving preferential treatment from the officials.
In a rare display of off-court emotion and brutal honesty, Garnett addressed those comments, defending himself and his team. While Garnett maintains he does not read the newspaper or search websites, he always manages to point out the latest media barbs about his age or rumors of his decline.
He takes such comments personally, but to acknowledge that would be admitting an outside force agitates him, and could potentially puncture that privacy bubble he has worked so hard to build.
On Thursday night, he ignored all that to take on one of his detractors.
“First off, I want to say thanks to their owner for giving me some extra gas tonight,’’ Garnett said. “My only advice to him is next time he opens his mouth, he actually knows what he’s talking about, X’s and O’s versus checkbooks and bottom lines.
“We’re not dirty. We’re fine. We play aggressive. We’re not dirty. You have to understand, the word ‘dirty’ in this game is very defined. Going at guys, trying to hurt guys, ill intent, that’s not the way we play basketball. We play very, very respectable to the opponent, the city we’re in, the game we play with a lot of passion, play with force. It’s the playoffs, but I haven’t been here trying to hurt anybody, nor have my teammates. I just found that comment to be a little rude and a little out of hand and I wanted to address it. Just because you got a bunch of money don’t mean you can open your mouth.’’
Those comments came after one of Garnett’s better games in recent memory. The Celtics rode Garnett because the other two-thirds of the Big Three were badly misfiring. Paul Pierce is nursing a sprained medial collateral ligament and attempted just 11 shots in 40 minutes, while Ray Allen said his troublesome right ankle has been especially painful the last two days and he had no lift on his jumper.
Besides Garnett, the Celtics were 7 for 25 for 21 points in the second half. He scored half their points in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead jumper with 30.4 seconds left as the Celtics rallied after blowing a 9-point lead.
Garnett’s ability to still break down younger and more athletic opponents, especially since late February, has dramatically changed how he is perceived, from an aging forward near the end of a marvelous career, to a crafty scorer who may have extended his stay in the NBA, and in Boston.
There’s no question Garnett will draw free agent interest this summer, but he has not indicated whether he will play past this season. Yet there is something about the spotlight, the opportunity to take advantage of younger opponents, that is irresistible.
He relishes these moments, even when the public is hanging on his every word. To believe he truly despises such opportunities for public displays means Garnett has been effective in fooling his audience.
While he’ll never join the cast of “Inside the NBA’’ when he retires, Garnett wants us to know that he listens and digests every word said about him. And he soaks up the criticism and turns it into motivation.
“I guess being 35, soon to be 36, I put a lot of work into my craft. I take it very seriously,’’ he said. “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. It does come off disrespectful at times. I take this very seriously, so you guys calling me old, that number defies, you have no idea what you are doing when you say those old comments. I appreciate that. I don’t read your column but it gets back to me.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.