Garnett building powerful case for MVP

Jim Fenton

When the midway point of the NBA season arrives this month, there will be discussions about the leading most valuable player candidates.

Front and center in all of those chats will be a power forward named Kevin Garnett.

Thirty games into a new chapter in his career, Garnett has clearly been the best player on the team with the league's best record.

If Garnett and his Boston Celtics continue at their current pace, he will be picking up a second MVP award next spring.

The latest piece of evidence in Garnett's favor was delivered on Wednesday night when he lifted a road-weary Celtics past the Houston Rockets, 97-93, at the TD Banknorth Garden.

It wasn't just the 16 points and five rebounds Garnett registered in the fourth quarter or the shutdown defense on 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming.

It was also the energy and the emotion Garnett brought to his teammates and the capacity crowd, which was brought to its feet to help get the Celtics over the hump.

Garnett put on a crunch-time show, finishing with 26 points on 11 of 15 shooting to go with nine rebounds and three blocked shots.

"That's why he is KG,'' said Houston forward Bonzi Wells. "That's why he gets paid the big bucks _ to make the big buckets, and that's what he did.''

Without Garnett's sensational performance, the Celtics would not have improved to 27-3, the best 30-game start in franchise history.

Without Garnett dominating at both ends in the final nine minutes, the Celtics would have been upset by a Houston team playing without the injured Tracy McGrady.

"My gas was high,'' said Garnett, who hit 7 of 10 shots in the last quarter. "You play the best in the league, you can't go in with low gas.

"You've got to have very high octane and I fed off this building. These fans in here were like a spark plug and I just plugged in. I didn't think about anything I was doing.  In the fourth quarter, I just went for it.''

The Celtics, who returned home after a 4-0 trip out west, built a 20-point lead during the first half and were in front by as many as 16 in the third quarter.

The sluggishness that comes from being on the other side of the country caught up with the Celtics in the second half, though, and they faced a three-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play.

Making matters worse was the fact that centers Kendrick Perkins and Scot Pollard had already fouled out, leaving Boston without a true center to deal with Yao.

Enter Garnett, who limited Yao to only three field goal attempts in the last eight minutes, and the only one he made was on a put-back with 2.4 seconds remaining.

At the other end of the floor, Garnett drew Yao outside and kept hitting jumpers with Paul Pierce setting him up three times.

On top of that, Garnett stood on the floor following a timeout and pointed to fans in the balcony, urging them to voice their support down the stretch.

"He did a great job,'' said Celtics forward James Posey. "It was superstar on superstar, and you don't get that in this league anymore.

"That's one thing about Kevin. He always accepts any challenge, and that was a big challenge. He's very emotional. He took it to a different level tonight and carried us to a win.''

Said Perkins, "It's great being around him. He's a guy that leads by example. You've got to respect that. He works hard every day, plays both ends of the court. You don't find too many guys like him.''

Garnett scored seven straight Celtics' points when the game was on the line, sealing their 15th home win in 16 games with a 19-footer with 22 seconds to go.

It was another case of Garnett doing what needed to be done to get the Celtics a win. His scoring average is down this season as Garnett is being unselfish on offense and being the catalyst for the league's best defense.

"I've played against Yao for some odd years in the West,'' said Garnett. "You can't really stop him. You just have to make him take tough shots and put him in a position to do some of the things that he doesn't really want to do. You try to meet him early, keep a body on him, contest his shots.''

It was a performance that will serve as an impressive entry for Garnett as he’s building a MVP portfolio.

The Hall-of-Fame-bound player obtained from the Minnesota Timberwolves in late July has exceeded all expectations.

"It's been cool,'' said Garnett of his start with the Celtics. "It's been a lot of hard work, but it's been fun. This is one of the best group of guys I've been with. It's not even a challenge. It's fun coming into practice every day. 

"Every day has a new challenge and it stays interesting. I'm enjoying it. Obviously, winning makes it a lot more better, but it's fun.''