Celtics need vintage Kevin Garnett

As the Boston Celtics motored away from the Charlotte Bobcats during the third quarter of Wednesday's win, Kevin Garnett jogged back to the defensive end, dropped to one knee and slapped the floor in front of him.

It was vintage KG, turning back the clock with a familiar outburst that showcased his defensive intensity. It was a familiar sight during the championship season of 2007-08, back when no one worried about the health of Garnett's right knee.

His numbers Wednesday were not particularly eye-catching: Garnett registered 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks, 2 steals and a plus/minus rating of plus-19 over 25 minutes in Boston's lopsided 104-80 triumph at the TD Garden.

And much to his delight, Garnett spent the entire fourth quarter joking with teammates on the bench, emphatically cheering on the second unit and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rasheed Wallace, laughing as Gino, the American Bandstand dancer who's been AWOL for much of the past three months, grooved on the JumboTron in the final minutes.

In a season in which KG simply hasn't looked like KG, it was promising for the Celtics to see the Garnett of old. In a season of scowls, Boston had to be encouraged by the smile that never left Garnett's face during the final 12 minutes of Wednesday's win.

"Everybody is picking their play up; I am no different from that," Garnett said. "I told you, I wanted to be a lot more aggressive the second half of the year, I am personally going to have a nice rhythm going into the playoffs. I am taking it one game at a time as we get healthy. I think you will start to see a better team."

A better team needs a better Garnett. Ever since he suffered a hyperextended right knee in late December, the power forward has struggled to maintain the defensive consistency that has defined his career.

For every vintage KG moment displayed since returning from a 10-game absence in January, there's been a moment when Garnett has looked like an aging 15th-year veteran playing on a bum leg.

From Rashard Lewis blowing past Garnett for the winning bucket in Orlando in late January to Ron Artest racing past KG for a pivotal fourth-quarter hoop in the Lakers' victory at the Garden last month, Garnett's defensive struggles have exposed that he's not fully healthy.

With each of his four blocks Wednesday night against the Bobcats, Garnett swatted away those who have suggested he might never regain his 2007-08 form.

"I think he's just getting better step by step," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I've been watching him so closely all year -- I just think he's improving, slowly. Even when he's on his bad nights, you can see some of the good things he's doing that he couldn't do earlier. So it's just going to take time, but he's getting better. This is the best he's been in a while with his movement, consistently. Especially [during] a back-to-back."

What does it mean for the Celtics to have vintage KG?

"It's everything. It's what we try to do out there," Celtics captain Paul Pierce said. "In our system, he is the biggest key. That's why we can't advance without him, especially in playoffs. He just causes so much attention. I think that we should play through him a lot more than what we do at times. I think we will continue to do that, give him the ball in the [low] post, the high post, where he can be a passer or a scorer and do a number of things that he does to make this a better team."

Like the Celtics as a whole, one quality outing is not enough to suggest that Garnett is out of the woods. All of which makes Friday's game in Philadelphia more meaningful than the standings might suggest. Can Garnett build off Wednesday's performance?

Boston's season hinges on Garnett's health more than anything else. The Celtics learned that last year during a second-round exit to the Magic, when Garnett's presence was sorely missed.

The Celtics need Garnett on the court, and they need him to look like the vintage KG.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.