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KEVIN GARNETT MOVED RIGHT IN. He made himself at home, and in little time his ways were defining the Boston Celtics. The way he would hide behind the stanchion of the basket as if it were a tree in the forest, muttering to himself as he tied his shorts tight in the minutes before tip-off. The way he would clap a white cloud of talcum powder in front of Celtics' courtside radio broadcaster Cedric Maxwell, who wore a hospital cap and gown against the fallout.
The way he would hug teammate James Posey, rocking back and forth and nodding, before taking the court. The way he would walk to the edge of the floor to demand noise from his new audience. The way he would leap high in front of the rim to intercept an opponent's playful jump shot after the whistle. The way he would accost teammates after they hustled, straddling and pretending to throw punches at second-year forward Leon Powe as he lay flattened after a violent play under the basket. The way he would pay attention from the bench to the final minutes of a blowout win with as much emotion and anxiety as a high school coach.
For almost 20 years Boston had been seeking to fill the hole in its lineup previously occupied by Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird. Garnett both restored and reinvented the Celtics' brand, which had grown dormant and irrelevant in the modern NBA. He instantly became a traditional Celtic.
"I knew he was a great player," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told The Boston Globe last November, after Boston had won its first seven games. "I had heard he was a great guy to coach. He's exceeded that. Every coach should have a chance to coach a Garnett."
Kevin Garnett had played 12 years with the Minnesota Timberwolves as a prototype for his generation: Not only did he set a standard for those who would join the NBA straight out of high school, but he also was a role model for big men who aspired to emulate his fluid perimeter game. The 6' 11" Garnett could play old school out of the post like his NBA forefathers; but the league MVP of 2003-04 was more at home shooting from the edges, handling the ball in the open court and guarding every corner of the defensive floor, like a power forward with the quickness and sensibility of a lockdown shooting guard.
His loyalty to the Timberwolves went unquestioned: Amid long-standing rumors to the contrary, he never would demand a trade out of Minnesota. Only when the Timberwolves decided to trade him last year was Garnett—like soon-to-be teammates Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—given a late-in-life opportunity to reach the NBA Finals. At 32 he had reinvented himself.
In no time the retro trim of green on the home whites looked fashionable on the broad shoulders of Garnett. His transformation of the Celtics was complete and unmistakable: an NBA-record 42-game improvement to become the league's winningest team, with 66 victories in 2007-08; the revolutionary makeover of a score-first offensive team into the league's dominant defense; and, of course, a 17th championship banner earned at the expense of the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The wholehearted commitment of Garnett's marriage to the Celtics' tradition is even more amazing when set against the backstory of his acquisition. Exactly one year before he was embracing the championship trophy with his teammates, Garnett had declared publicly that he wanted nothing to do with Boston.
It's all part of the legend that the Celtics entered the 2007 off-season hoping to turn the second-worst record in the league (24 wins) into the No. 1 or 2 pick in the draft, netting them a potential franchise star in Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Their ensuing free fall in the lottery to the No. 5 pick turned out to be a piece of fortune for a franchise that had celebrated little good luck over the previous 20 years: It forced general manager Danny Ainge to package the pick in a draft-day trade to Seattle for Allen, which not only persuaded Pierce to drop his anticipated demand to be traded but also convinced Garnett to view the Celtics as a team with championship potential.
As possible deals with the Lakers, Suns, Warriors, Mavericks, Bulls and Knicks collapsed over the following weeks, Garnett would grow more and more intrigued by the Celtics. "The whole situation changed for me," he says. "I didn't speak publicly. But I tried to be comfortable with seeing myself in a Celtics jersey."