ORLANDO, Fla. – They were superstars in suits.

Kevin Garnett of Boston and Jameer Nelson of Orlando, 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 game, I’d say 65 percent actually, we spent looking at each other’s bench talking trash to each other.”

Their injuries last season became the symbol of why their teams fell short. Now healthy and playing their best basketball of the year, both get a shot at redemption when the Celtics and Magic meet in the Eastern Conference finals starting 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 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 title team, was out for the playoffs, crushing dreams of a repeat. The Celtics lost to the Magic in seven games.

Garnett was slowed again by the knee and other injuries this season. But he’s regained his rhythm in the past few months, and averaged 18.8 points in the second round against 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 Garnett and Nelson is the Magic advanced far enough last year to allow Nelson to attempt a comeback.

Nelson’s surprise return in the NBA finals didn’t have a dream ending. He was rusty and reluctant to attack, and Orlando lost to the Lakers in five games.

Nelson was criticized for disrupting the team’s chemistry.

“I wasn’t myself in the finals,” Nelson said. “I’m not making any excuses. I should have helped my team out better.”

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.

Nelson is averaging a team-best 20.5 points in the postseason, helping the Magic to two series sweeps after they ended the regular season with six straight wins. He provides an elusive point guard who can create his own shot, something Orlando lacked last season.

The same goes for the Celtics.

Garnett’s resurgence has ignited Boston’s bruising style, smothering opponents defensively. His offensive game also has picked up, and if he can stay healthy, he has proven he can still be a game-changing player.

The Celtics believe Garnett just needed time.

“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,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. “There’s no way we can win a championship without him.”


THE CELTICS’ series-clinching victory over Cleveland in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Thursday night was the second-most watched basketball game ever aired on ESPN.

The broadcast drew a 6.6 rating on the cable network and averaged 6,552,000 households and 8,983,000 viewers. Only Game 4 of last year’s Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets did better on ESPN, earning a 6.9 rating.


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