NBA: Garnett, Nelson fueled by lost time in East finals
By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
Associated Press Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. — They were superstars in suits.
Boston's Kevin Garnett and Orlando's Jameer Nelson, sidelined with injuries in last year's second-round playoff series, were diminished to spectators on the bench. The feisty competitors could only make their presence known through words.
"We were talking so much trash to each other, it felt like we were in the game," Nelson said. "Probably the whole entire game, I'd say 65 percent of it actually, we spent looking down at each other's bench talking trash to each other."
Anything to feel a part of the playoffs.
The injuries to each last season, in their own ways, became the symbol of why their teams fell short. Now healthy and playing their best basketball of the season, both get a shot at redemption when the Celtics and Magic meet in the Eastern Conference finals beginning Sunday.
"I'm quite sure he's feeling the same way I'm feeling," Nelson said. "I have a chip on my shoulder, and I'm going to go out there and try to seize this moment because there's nothing promised to you."
Last year proved that.
They were hit hard with injuries last February after making the All-Star team. The injury to Garnett's right knee led to surgery to remove bone spurs in the summer; Nelson tore the labrum in his right shoulder and had what was then-called season-ending surgery.
Garnett, the centerpiece of Boston's 2008 championship, was out for the playoffs, crushing the Celtics' dreams of a repeat. They lost to the Magic in seven games.
The Big Ticket was slowed again by the knee and other injuries this season. But Garnett has regained his rhythm in the past few months, and he averaged 18.8 points per game in Boston's series win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Over the course of the season, I've been fortunate to be healthy, and I can honestly say each month I've gotten stronger," Garnett said. "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 than that, less than that."
Perhaps the only difference between the two is that the Magic advanced enough to allow Nelson to attempt a comeback.
Nelson's surprise return in the NBA finals didn't have the kind of ending he had hoped for. He was rusty and reluctant to attack on the league's biggest stage, and Orlando lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Nelson was criticized for disrupting the team's chemistry and has sheltered the blame since.
"I wasn't myself in the finals," Nelson said. "I'm not making any excuses. I should have helped my team out better."
Consider this season's playoff series their chance.
The Magic went 3-1 against the Celtics this season, but that means little if the teams are only now both healthy. The once sidelined starters completely change matchups and rotations, creating an untested playoff dynamic.
Nelson is averaging a team-best 20.5 points per game in the postseason, helping the Magic to two series sweeps and 14 straight wins. He provides an elusive point guard who can create his own shot, something they lacked last season.
The same goes for the guys in green.
Garnett's resurgence has ignited Boston's bruising style, smothering opponents defensively. His offensive game has picked up, too, and — if he can stay healthy — has proved he can still be a game-changing player.
The Celtics believe Garnett just needed time to shake off the rust.
"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," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "There's no way we can win a championship without him."
Even last year from the sideline the Magic remember Garnett.
Dressed in a suit and tie, still intense as ever, Garnett was constantly shouting at Orlando players. He did anything he could to feel like he was out there.
"He was always on the bench talking," Magic forward Rashard Lewis said. "It was almost like he was on the court playing."
Only he wasn't.
This time, though, they'll leave the suits in the locker room for Game 1 in Orlando. The chatter, well, that will just move inside the lines.
"I'm a competitor," Nelson said. "I want to be out there, not just cheering."
Now they'll get to do both.