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BOSTON -- Call him The Subtle Ticket.
In his first game back after a nine-game absence, Kevin Garnett didn't put up any gaudy offensive numbers (19 points on 7-of-13 shooting) and he didn't inspire the Boston Celtics to play the sort of lockdown defense we've come to expect when he's on the floor.
But Garnett did all the little things, the sort of stuff that blends harmlessly into the box score but might have made the difference in Monday's 109-106 win over the Orlando Magic.
|Kevin Garnett returned by scoring 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, but his defense really made the difference.|
Take Garnett's two assists, both passes that few big men in the league can make. The first was a beautiful lob to a cutting Ray Allen for a reverse layup in the opening moments of the game. The other came when he made an extra pass in the paint to Shaquille O'Neal for an old-school rim-rocking dunk.
Then there was his two steals, the second of which was decidedly more noteworthy than the first. With Orlando seeking a tying basket, down three with less than 30 seconds to play, Ryan Anderson came down with an offensive rebound of a Hedo Turkoglu miss. Jameer Nelson ended up with the ball and, after catching Boston in a switch off the pick-and-roll, was looking to feed it back to the top of the key where Jason Richardson, one of Orlando's top 3-point threats, would have had a wide-open look.
If not for Garnett.
Despite basically being pinned behind Orlando's point guard, Garnett managed to reach out his long arms and bat down the pass as it left Nelson's hands. He then tracked down the loose ball and fed it ahead to the Celtics' Ray Allen, who drew the foul and made the free throws that sealed the game.
"I'm just trying to be active," Garnett said. "I just recall seeing the passing lane and the steal was there."
Garnett made the play sound so much simpler than it was. Across the hall in the visitor's locker room, Nelson told reporters that Garnett, operating with five personal fouls, was probably the only player who could have swiped the pass the way he did.
To be sure, Garnett displayed rust from a near three-week absence. He turned the ball over four times and, after grabbing six first-quarter rebounds, hauled in only two more caroms the rest of the night. He looked gassed after his initial nine-minute shift.
But Garnett still found a way to leave his mark, even if it was just his typically bombastic voice, alternating between shouting out defensive assignments to barking at Brandon Bass and Turkoglu to screaming at the Boston bench to get his teammates pumped up in the second half.
"They all talk, but no one talks like Kevin," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He's the best talker in the league, when you're talking defense.
"It was clear tonight. I didn't think we had a great defensive night, I thought we were actually average. But it was clear the communication, especially those last four possessions, you could hear it. [Garnett] was calling their sets out. He's a defensive coach on the floor."
The Magic missed six of their final seven shots over the last 2:31, Garnett leading the hell-bent effort to deny Orlando, especially after the Celtics went cold during a Christmas Day visit to Disney World in which the hosts rallied from a 12-point, second-half deficit to win on the strength of a 29-point fourth quarter.
"The last two minutes when we played down there, they took over those two minutes," Garnett said. "We talked about that on the way home, we talked about that [Sunday] at practice, and we talked about it a bit before the game, so we remembered."
Garnett strained his right calf two games after that Christmas loss and had been sidelined since. He didn't rush himself back for this game, but the Celtics were glad it lined up that way.
"These two weeks have been dark days for me," Garnett admitted. "I've been trying to keep my morale up, be around the guys and travel. Being hurt is not one of the things I like. I hate it. I don't deal with it well. I get over it, these knuckleheads were keeping it real light for me, keeping my spirits up."
Now Garnett is back and picking up his teammates with his energy.
"I knew he'd play with energy, you could see that," Rivers said. "You could see it [Sunday], and I was telling guys [Sunday] that our practice was just crazy with energy.
"I was concerned about his wind, but I wasn't concerned about his health at all. I knew one of the things we said: He wasn't playing until he was 100 percent. But [Sunday], we went an hour [at practice] and after about 10 minutes, he looked like he needed an oxygen tank. And that's why I took him out early in the first quarter. I thought he was struggling then.
"And then he came back and he felt great. So, yeah, he surprises you all the time."
Even if they are small, subtle surprises.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.