LOS ANGELES — The knee may never be the same. Kevin Garnett’s heart hasn’t changed a bit.
No longer the dominant player he was when the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship two years ago, Garnett still plays with his same trademark intensity.
Maybe even more now.
“What was burning in me two years ago is probably intensified just because of last year,” Garnett said Wednesday. “It was kind of like we never had a real chance to really defend our own title.”
The Celtics can win another one if they beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals for the second time in three years. To do so, they’ll likely need a big contribution from Garnett.
That’s no guarantee anymore, though.
Still a very good player, Garnett is no longer a force, certainly not the player who spearheaded the defensive effort that helped Boston shove the Lakers around in 2008. Considered one of the Celtics’ Big Three, he might be their fourth-best player.
Whatever he gives the Celtics, his teammates think will be good enough.
“He’s going to play hard. That’s all you need from Kevin,” backup forward Glen Davis said. “When he plays hard, the way he plays hard, he’s going to hit some jump shots, he’s going to get some blocked shots. It might not be 20 rebounds a night or 20 points a night, but he’s going to be a factor in the game.”
Garnett was the Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago, his first in Boston. The Celtics might have repeated with their power forward on the floor, but Garnett’s 2008-09 season ended after 57 games because of a knee injury that required surgery.
He acknowledges that Los Angeles is the rightful champion, but can’t fully escape the idea that the Celtics might’ve been the ones celebrating if he’d been healthy.
“He’s got a big chip on his shoulder,” Davis said. “Last year he was one of the big reasons we didn’t make it.
“He wasn’t playing; he wasn’t healthy. And so for him to be healthy now and back at the finals makes him feel better. But at the same time for him to be back and be a major factor, I can kind of feel it. He really wants this championship bad.”
Asked what last year’s playoffs were like for him, Garnett simply responded: “Miserable.”
Garnett scoffed at the skeptics who thought he could never play with the same fire he did in that first season in Boston — an ‘animaniac,’ Rasheed Wallace called him. Garnett insisted that one time at the top was never going to replace all those years at the bottom when he toiled in Minnesota, where he escaped the first round only once.
But he can’t quiet all the doubters who wonder how much game he has left.
His 14.3 points per game in the regular season was his lowest average since his rookie season. After a surprisingly strong series in Boston’s second-round upset of Cleveland, when he scored 18 or more in every game, Garnett cracked 10 only once in the Eastern Conference finals against Orlando.
He said that was because of the way the Magic double-teamed him.
“Kevin has been great. I think all postseason he’s played and he’s done the things that we need him to do. He never goes in, he never predetermines what he’s going to do,” teammate Ray Allen said. “He just tries to play the game and he tries to do for us what he feels like we need.”
The Lakers are unlikely to double, so Garnett will get his chances. And his defense against Pau Gasol, one of the biggest reasons the series two years ago went Boston’s way, will be even more important this time around, because Gasol is a better player than he was then — and tougher.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he was “intrigued” by that matchup, knowing the importance of both players.
“He’s still very effective and he’s still one of their team leaders. You know, still a very hard competitor, and he’s going to give all he’s got for his team,” Gasol said. “So knowing that, you’ve just got to respect everything that he does and what he brings to the table: the leadership, the aggressiveness, and he’s going to compete now matter what. He’s proven that through the injury, and so you’ve got to play him.”
And Garnett won’t make it easy.
“I definitely know I’ve got to be a presence in this series,” Garnett said. “I’m understanding of that.”