- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Flip Saunders was desperate. The Minnesota Timberwolves' coach had lost his starting point guard during the 2004 Western Conference finals against the Lakers. His backup point guard was injured. Even a third point guard, imported from the CBA, was injured.
So who did Saunders decide should run the Minnesota offense?
Who else? Kevin Garnett. "It was him and Freddy Hoiberg. They were my point guards," Saunders said.
And what did Garnett take away from it all?
"It was the worst experience of my life," Garnett said. "But I have a lot of respect for the point guard position just because of that."
The Timberwolves lost the series in six games and, as it turned out, that would be the last time the franchise participated in the playoffs. The next season he was back at his natural, power forward position, which is where he continued to play all the way up to the third week of February 2012.
It was during the Feb. 20 game at Dallas, three days before the All-Star break, that Doc Rivers finally got around to doing what he had wanted to do from the beginning of the season: Play Garnett at center. Two nights later at Oklahoma City, Garnett started at center. On the way to the team plane after the game, a fifth straight loss, Rivers told one of the greatest power forwards in the history of the NBA that he was now going to have to play the center spot.
How did Garnett take it? Not well, Rivers said.
"He takes everything the way he takes it," Rivers said. "At the end of the day, the greatest part about him is he's going to do what's good for the team. And that's what he did."
Garnett still isn't all that thrilled about playing center. "It's not a preference of mine, but it's something my team needs so I don't think about it," he said. Saunders thinks it's the natural evolution of the player he coached for 10 seasons.
When Garnett first arrived in Minnesota as a raw 19-year-old in 1995, Saunders said he told him, "You're going to come into the league as a 6-foot-11 [small forward], even though we always said he was 6-foot-13 because he never wanted to be known as a 7-footer and he's really 7-foot-1. Then, I said you're going to be an All-Pro player as a power forward and you're going to finish your career as a center."
The reason Rivers didn't act sooner in moving Garnett was because the coach needed more time to figure out who would replace Garnett at the power forward spot. Once he settled on Brandon Bass, the move was made.
Had it not happened, the Celtics might not be where they are right now, which is in a first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. They became the first team in NBA history to win a division title with a plus-.500 record at the end of the season after having had a losing record at the All-Star break.
While there are other compelling storylines surrounding the Celtics' dash to the finish -- Avery Bradley, Greg Stiemsma, Mickael Pietrus -- the most critical is that of Garnett's positional change. He played 36 games as a center this season and the Celtics won 25 of those games. Fifteen of his 21 double-doubles came in those 36 games. According to BasketballValue.com, Boston outscores opponents by 10.71 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the court. It doesn't really matter who is on the court with him, either.
Rivers also has been watching Garnett's minutes, trying to keep him at the 30-minute-per-game level. Garnett ended up averaging 31.1, matching his second-lowest per-game average in his five years in Boston. Rivers did implement a Garnett Preservation Plan from day one, which involved having Garnett replaced midway through the first and third quarters.
Early in the season, that role fell to Chris Wilcox or Bass. Now, it falls to the rookie Stiemsma and it doesn't matter how well Garnett is playing. He's coming out.
"I think it's been great," Rivers said. "Honestly, I've been kicking myself three years now, really. I wish I had done that with him at least a year earlier. I think it's really helped him. He doesn't pace himself. He knows how hard he can go."
The time management along with Garnett's extended rest over the All-Star Weekend has paid dividends. Garnett once again anchors a defense that leads the league in defensive field goal percentage and defensive 3-point percentage. His scoring, rebounding and assists numbers all have improved in his stint as a center.
He may not be all that happy with the move, but the record speaks for itself. It's further evidence, Saunders suggested, that Garnett will go down as the most versatile player in NBA history.
Just as long as he stays in the frontcourt.
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