'Sheed and KG: They are, indeed, mirror images ... but only to a point
Like looking in the mirror, Kevin Garnett says of his matchup with Rasheed Wallace in the Eastern Conference championship series between their teams, the Celtics and the Pistons. And in so many ways, that's it exactly.
Thirteen seasons deep, both of them, into their NBA careers. Drafted back-to-back in 1995, Wallace the fourth pick after spending two years at North Carolina, Garnett the fifth pick as the first preps-to-pros player in 20 years. Outrageously talented big men who, had they come along a decade or two earlier, surely would have been labeled "centers'' and planted in the low post by coaches heeding the traditions of the game.
For most of eight seasons, Garnett and Wallace -- with Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Shawn Kemp early in that span, Dirk Nowitzki later -- anchored and largely defined the Western Conference from their power-forward position. Each of them eventually had to move to redefine himself, Wallace winding up in Detroit four years ago and Garnett landing in Boston last summer for a shot at a ring and the rafters. And when Garnett was hurting three months ago, right through the All-Star break, it was Wallace who took his roster spot on the East squad that played in New Orleans.
So yeah, sure, it's like looking in the mirror for them. Until the mirror turns funhouse.
Stare at the similarities long enough and the differences appear. Statistically, the gap is considerable: Garnett has averaged 20.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists across his 13 regular seasons, shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and 81.7 percent from the line. Wallace's numbers are 15.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 47.4 FG pct. and 72.7 FT pct.
Technical fouls per game? OK, Wallace has Garnett there, by a wide margin.
But Garnett was the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2004 and the Defensive Player of the Year this season. He's an 11-time All-Star, the MVP of the 2003 midseason showcase and a member of the All-NBA teams nine times (four firsts, three seconds and two thirds). Wallace? No annual awards. A four-time All-Star. And not a single All-NBA berth, not even a third-teamer. That's one part glaring underachievement, given his abilities, and one part reflection of what the media folks who do the voting think of him.
Garnett's teams have made the playoffs nine times, with a total of 62 games heading into Thursday's Game 2 against the Pistons. His personal record for playoff series won and lost: 4-8. Wallace, in 12 postseason appearances, has played in 144 games. His teams in Portland and Detroit have a 17-10 record by series. And as far as championship rings won, it is 'Sheed 1, KG 0.
Then there's this: Some NBA insiders feel that, if there is a hair's difference between them in the here and now, on the court Thursday and for the rest of this best-of-seven series, the advantage belongs ever so slightly to Wallace.
"Rasheed is a wild card,'' an Eastern Conference scout said. "He has a wider range of skills than Garnett, and actually I think he's as skilled as anyone in our league. He has more range on his outside shot. In the low post, there's no comparison. The numbers might not show it, but I think he's just as good if not better as a passer -- it's just that Garnett's teams play through him and Rasheed's teams go to him. I give Garnett the edge in consistency of rebounding and defense, but they're both good defenders at their position.
"But it's a mental game for Rasheed to stay focused and involved for 48 minutes, though that's less of a problem with him in the playoffs.''
Garnett and Wallace both have those skillet foreheads -- you could fry an egg on either of them, given the heat of their emotions. What separates them in that category is when and how the emotions emerge. With the former, it is passion and intensity, evident even before tip-off in his head-pounding, resin-tossing ritual that loads and cocks his game like a boxer smacking himself a time or two with those 12-ounce mittens. With the latter, it is temper and fury, which swells up usually in response to a whistle blown or unblown by some non-combatant who nonetheless wields authority over everything Wallace does.
That, as much as anything, is why Garnett will head to Springfield, Mass., and the Naismith Hall of Fame five years after he's done, while Wallace might slip into the anonymity he has seemed to crave so often in his career.
"Rasheed wants to support everybody else on his team,'' the scout said. "But he could definitely be the main guy wherever he played. Garnett has been that guy but really is the ultimate support player, the way he looks for teammates and doesn't look for his shot."
In other words, Wallace is good enough to be a franchise player but doesn't want it. Garnett is a classic sidekick or No. 2 by skills and temperament, yet has been the "main guy" for most of his career.
Now the money question: Which one would you rather coach?
The scout hesitated, then said: "You'd think Garnett. Just because of Rasheed's tantrums.''
Garnett's emotions sometimes get the best of him, sending him onto the floor as stoked for a first quarter in Milwaukee in January as he can muster for a fourth quarter in Cleveland in May. But Wallace's Vesuvius-like eruptions can cost his team points, in the form of technical foul shots, and even worse, deprive the Pistons of his services if he gets yanked, ejected or just overly flustered.
The two men are friendly, going back to their rookie orientation days, and respectful to a fault. Immediately after Garnett clearly won the first battle in this series with 26 points and nine rebounds to Wallace's 3-of-12 shooting, the Celtics' star deflected a question based on that reality. "I gotta go out there and try to bust his butt just like he's trying to bust mine,'' Garnett said.
There are a dozen other key and crucial determinants in the showdown between these two teams. But who busts whose more often and most decisively in the matchup between Garnett and Wallace could tell us, years from now, exactly how the mirror crack'd.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.