KG the Celtics' difference-maker

BOSTON -- Celtics forward Kevin Garnett underwent surgery to remove posterior bone spurs from his right knee on May 26, 2009. Doctors suggested it would be a year before he was himself again.

Maybe they were off by a couple of weeks.

Garnett capped a spectacular performance in Boston's Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday by scoring a team-high 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting with 12 rebounds as Boston eliminated the Cavs with a 94-85 win in Game 6 at TD Garden.

The Celtics advance to meet the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals. The teams played a thrilling seven-game series in last year's conference semis, but there was one thing missing: KG.

The Cavaliers surely wish he had been out of commission this year, too.

Garnett averaged 18.8 points and eight rebounds over the six semifinal contests, marks well above his regular-season totals (14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds). MVPs are not named for this round, but one could easily make the case that other than perhaps Rajon Rondo, no Celtic is more deserving of such an honor than Garnett.

"KG is a champion. He's won a championship before," said Cleveland coach Mike Brown. "He's a veteran, he's a pro, he's mentally tough and he can go get it, whether it's defensively or offensively. He hit some big shots for them. Early on, he hit their first four or five shots, and his presence on both ends of the floor as a player, as a leader and as a veteran is big for those guys."

Tentative at times during the regular season, particularly after sustaining a hyperextended right knee in late December, Garnett never quite looked like the KG of old.

Until the playoffs arrived.

"Over the course of the season, I've been fortunate to be healthy, and I can honestly say, each month, I've gotten stronger," said Garnett. "I don't know, the playoffs come around, it's time to pick it up another notch and that's all I've been trying to do. Nothing more, nothing less than that. It's no secret, I take care of my body. I'm a workaholic when it comes to trying to better myself.

"Nothing's changed, just trying to better myself."

Still, even the most casual observer can see how much Garnett has improved lately. The Cavaliers know it. Celtics coach Doc Rivers spoke of it. And Garnett's teammates certainly noticed it.

"Kevin really didn't have a lot of time with his recovery and the doctor said it would take at least a year for him to heal," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "The key was just keeping him healthy throughout the season. He had his ups and downs, and I think right now you are starting to see a healthy Kevin.

"The way he is elevating, even at the end of the game, getting offensive rebounds or going up for his jump shot, he is looking like he's closer to 100 percent. But when you have surgery, it takes a lot out of you and it's good to see him playing like that, so well and consistent, because we are going to need him and there's no way we can win a championship without him."

The Celtics found that out on May 17 of last year, when Orlando emerged with a 101-82 triumph in Game 7 of the conference semifinals.

A shade under a year later, Garnett showed just how healthy he is with an effusive one-handed fast-break slam that essentially represented the dagger in Cleveland's season as Boston opened an 88-74 lead with 5:52 to play.

Throughout the game, Garnett ran circles around Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, the two players brought in this season to push James and the Cavaliers over the top.

Those players were brought in to help slow down Dwight Howard. The Cavaliers didn't count on vintage Garnett. And Garnett remained in classic form after the game.

"There's a lot of people in this room, boy," joked Garnett, scanning the media workroom from the interview podium and alluding to those who were part of the LeBron Watch. "Man! Lot of people in this room. Haven't seen this many people in this room since, uh, [2008]."

And the Celtics haven't seen this KG since, uh, 2008. At times this season, it seemed they might never see him again.

The last time the Celtics visited Orlando, in February, Rashard Lewis blew past Garnett for a baseline bucket in the final seconds of the Magic's 96-94 triumph.

Garnett and the Celtics return to Orlando looking not only for redemption for that game but also for last year's entire KG-less postseason.

"I'm just glad to have the Big Ticket on our side this time," said Tony Allen.

Before Game 6, Glen Davis, who filled in so admirably for Garnett during last year's playoffs, admitted that while he was able to offset Garnett's stats, he couldn't replace his leadership on the court.

Garnett will bring his intensity and vocal presence to the next round, a series in which Boston will once again be the underdog. But it's Garnett's play that should really concern Orlando.

"His knee has kind of been on and off, he's been taking breaks," said Davis. "It's getting back right and right now he's in a groove. I think he's still not where he wants to be, but he's in a groove.

"It's nice to see Kevin doing what he does. It's a great thing and I'm happy to see the Big Ticket doing his thing."

The Celtics and Magic are scheduled to play Game 5 of the conference finals on May 26 -- one year to the day since Garnett's surgery. It's scary to think that he might be playing even better basketball by that point.

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