LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. Even the most staunch King James detractor would have to admit that. Trust me, I'm one of them.
But while James is clearly the most talented player to have taken the court in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, he has not been the series' most valuable player through its first four games. That distinction also does not apply to Dwyane Wade, nor does it to Rajon Rondo.
Edging out the league's regular season MVP, the Miami Heat captain, and a point guard who's put up stat lines not seen since Magic Johnson as the most important player on the floor in the Eastern Conference Finals is a 36-year-old center who might literally be on his last legs.
Over the course of his hall of fame career, Kevin Garnett has won a regular season MVP award and an NBA championship, yet this year's semi-finals against the Heat may go down as one of the defining moments of his career. Once one of the league's premiere offensive forwards, The Big Ticket has reinvented himself as one of the league's best defensive centers, and has turned into a player that the Celtics can't afford to keep off of the floor while going against the league's top dynamic duo of James and Wade.
To witness the impact that Garnett has had on this series one must look no further than the final possession of regulation in Sunday's Game 4. As James drove the lane on Celtics forward Mickael Pietrus, Garnett's help defense from his spot in the paint helped force the MVP into throwing an errant pass to Udonis Haslem. As if helping get the ball out of James' hands wasn't enough, the Celtics big man then used his range and size to contest Haslem's attempt at a game-winner into an off-balance, fadeaway jumper that never stood much of a chance.
Perhaps more indicative of the 14-time All-Star's importance to this series is what happens when he's not on the court. Since the end of Game 3, Heat coach Erik Spolestra has taken advantage of the Celtics' lack of a back-up center (sorry, Greg Stiemsma) by playing five perimeter players in a line-up that consists of James playing center. The Heat's version of small ball has led to two comebacks from double-digit deficits and has made Garnett nearly indispensable to coach Doc Rivers.
This could prove to be a problem, as playing the 36-year-old Garnett 48-plus minutes simply isn't an option for the Celtics. The expected return of Chris Bosh in tonight's Game 5 could also throw a wrinkle into the impact that the 2004 MVP's been having on the series. But as was the case a season ago with the Mavericks and Tyson Chandler, should the Heat fail to win an NBA Title for the second consecutive season, it will be thanks to the unsung work of a defensive-minded center.