Garnett MVP?

We've been hearing it now for a while. Somehow, Kevin Garnett no longer is a consensus choice for Most Valuable Player because he (a) had the temerity to suffer a serious injury for the first time in his career and (b) his team had the temerity to win seven of the nine games he missed.

But after last night's 98-88 grinder over the Hawks, the Celtics are, ahem, 39-10 when Garnett does play. And when he plays like he did yesterday, you'd like to send the game film to all those who have elevated Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to exalted status. They're both terrific, as they proved yesterday with tour de forces on national TV.

Then, before the usual 18,624 at TD Banknorth Garden, Garnett did his thing.

In his best "I'm back" statement game since he got hurt, Garnett had 20 points, 16 rebounds, and 3 assists. He is gradually working his way back to form, the form that made him the MVP front-runner for the first 2 1/2 months of the season. He once again anchored a defense that held the Hawks to the kind of numbers that make assistant coach Tom Thibodeau sleep easy: 88 points and 39.5 percent shooting.

Asked if he felt he was getting more comfortable, Garnett was prepared to respond when Paul Pierce stepped in.

"He's all the way back," Pierce said. "Did you all watch the game? When he's going to the basket, inside and outside, dominating the rebounds, that's the Kevin Garnett I like to see."

As for Garnett, he said, simply, "I had a decent night. I don't know what you all expect. I am human and I do have rust. But I am coming. I am coming along, slowly but surely."

Making the case for an MVP is a subjective one and occasionally leads to results that make you want to tear your hair out. In 2002, for instance, there was no more valuable player in the NBA than Jason Kidd, who single-handedly transformed the moribund Nets and took them to the NBA Finals. He did exactly what Steve Nash did for Phoenix. But Tim Duncan was named the MVP in a result that I still can't fathom, much as I love Duncan.

The case for Garnett is pretty simple. The Celtics have the best record in the NBA, have had the best record all year, and he is their best player. The Celtics have been the best defensive team pretty much all season (save for that hideous two-game stretch in Denver and Golden State) and Garnett is the reason. He makes it all possible. Thibodeau gets props for his schemes, but if you don't have Garnett out there at middle linebacker barking out calls, it doesn't matter.

So why has he now dropped behind Kobe and LeBron in a lot of the opinion polls? Let's start with the injury. Before this season, Garnett never had been hurt. He missed games at the end of the last two seasons to protect the Timberwolves' lottery position and ensure that Minnesota kept its pick. He wasn't really hurt hurt. This year, he was, and it was a first for him.

You know what they say in sports: You shouldn't lose your job because of injury. (That truism was amended in 2001 to include the Tom Brady Exception.) Garnett didn't lose his job. He just lost a little bit of his eminence because his team happened to win while he was out. You know why? Because the Celtics have got a good team. The Cavaliers go Grizzlies when James is out, which, I guess, helps make his case for MVP in a roundabout way. But they've also lost a lot of games when LeBron plays, too.

Bryant is now getting regular MVP chants when he's at the line at the Staples Center and he should. He's the best player on a team that is among the best in the very tough Western Conference. The Lakers were pretty good - not great - when they made the trade for Pau Gasol. Since Gasol arrived, the Lakers are a very good 12-2. Is Bryant even a top-three candidate if the Gasol trade isn't made? Just asking.

James finally got some help at the trading deadline and the Cavaliers we saw last week won't look anything like the Cavaliers we might see in the second round of the playoffs. James is always going to get MVP consideration because of the load he has to carry. And he should, especially seeing what he had to carry before the trade was made and the fact that Cleveland is winless in the six games he has missed this season.

Maybe if the Celtics had gone 2-7 when Garnett was out, his MVP chances would have improved. But those NBA observers who have dropped Garnett from the top will get a good opportunity to see the real KG these last six or so weeks. And please, stop with all the talk about reduced minutes. That's by design. The guy has a lot of mileage on his frame.

If you want to give the MVP to the guy with the best numbers on a pretty good team, then Garnett is not your guy. If you want to give it to the best player on the best team, to an individual who has transformed a franchise and brought the word "defense" into the daily discourse without the need for a laugh track, then he still has to warrant serious consideration.

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