BOSTON — Kevin Garnett stood tall by his team's bench, his piercing eyes focused on the action on the court.
It was a meaningless game. The Boston Celtics already had clinched the NBA's best record, and coach Doc Rivers was resting his starters.
As his teammates relaxed on the bench, Garnett watched anxiously as the Celtics' subs blew a big lead then held on to beat the Bucks 107-104 in overtime.
"It was nerve-racking," he said. "You want your guys to play well. I was just trying to tell guys what I saw during timeouts. I was trying to keep energy high and morale up."
Even when Garnett isn't playing, he's into the game. Practices, pregame shootarounds, postgame news conferences — the look is serious and intense.
And when the Celtics have big leads — there have been plenty — he rarely cracks a smile.
"You see how focused he is, and it's like sometimes you've got to tell him, 'Hey man, enjoy it, too,"' Paul Pierce said. "He's on the sideline, we're up 25 points, 2 minutes to go, getting mad at people. I'm like, 'Relax, this game's in the bag. Enjoy it."'
Maybe Garnett won't win his second most valuable player award. Most stats favor Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul. But if there were an MIP award for Most Intense Player, the leader most responsible for the Celtics' record turnaround would have all the qualifications.
He is the best player on the team with the NBA's best record. He's led the Celtics to the biggest single-season turnaround in league history, breaking San Antonio's record 36-game improvement. And he's the inspiration for a hard-working team that leads the NBA in point differential and lowest opponents' field goal percentage.
"Look at the team. Look at the team's record. Look at the turnaround," Ray Allen said. "I think he's probably the more unselfish guy in the NBA (of the top MVP candidates) that's made his team better. It's not just the offensive perspective."
Last season the Celtics were 24-58, their second worst record for a franchise that has an NBA best 16 championships. After trading for Garnett in the offseason, they are 64-16 after a 99-89 win Saturday night over Atlanta, their likely first-round playoff opponent.
"He has a great deal of intensity and I think his intensity sort of carries over to other people," former Celtics great John Havlicek said. "Maybe that desire and intensity is somewhat like a Dave Cowens."
Cowens was named MVP in 1972-73, the season the Celtics had their best record, 68-14.
Should Garnett get the award, too?
"What's our record?" coach Doc Rivers said. "That's all I have to say."
But Garnett has much more talent around him than the other top contenders. Pierce starred on mediocre Celtics teams for nine seasons. Allen was obtained from Seattle on June 28, making Boston more attractive to Garnett, who had preferred other destinations.
"The whole situation changed for me" with the trade for Allen, Garnett said.
Even after acquiring Allen, though, the Celtics weren't a shoo-in for the playoffs, let alone the NBA's best record. But Garnett badly wanted his first championship ring, and the Celtics suddenly had potential to give him that.
So the rebuilding Timberwolves traded him on July 31 for five players and two first-round draft picks. Then free agents James Posey and Eddie House arrived and, late in the season, so did veterans Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown, who thinks Garnett should be MVP.
"Just being able to see him since I've been here, he's one of the most intense players that I've been around," said Brown, who went to the Eastern Conference finals with Miami in 1996-97. "His practice habits are unbelievable and unmatched by anything that I've ever seen. Probably the closest I've seen is Alonzo (Mourning). What makes him MVP to me is the way he raises the level of the players around him."
Other than the important one — wins — Garnett's numbers don't compare with those of Bryant, James and Paul. He was averaging 18.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.23 blocks, 3.5 assists and 33.1 minutes going into Saturday's game, all his lowest in at least 10 seasons.
Garnett's unselfishness and contributions from Pierce and Allen contribute to that. And all those blowouts — 43 of Boston's first 63 wins were by at least 10 points — allowed Rivers to rest him late in some games and, once, sit him out entirely.
Rivers has even canceled practice for the whole team on occasion because he knows that he won't be able to limit Garnett to half-speed.
Garnett's also been one of the best defenders among the NBA's big men for most of his career. Boston has allowed the second fewest points per game with him blocking the path to the basket and making sure teammates are in the right spots.
If they're not, he lets them know.
"Everything he's done for the culture of the team, his impact on the game, is just tremendous," Pierce said. "The way we go about practice every day, the focus on games, spending some time with him on the bus. From the time we leave that (locker) room, everything is focus, keeping everybody on the same page. Those are things that can't be measured when you talk about MVP."
One person who has no interest in the discussion is Garnett himself.
So KG, what do you think about the MVP competition?
"Next question," he said.
The playoff journey starts next weekend. It should be a long one for a team that has won just three postseason series in 15 years.
"The postseason is always good, man. It's nothing about individuals. It's about the team," Garnett said.
That team knows he's their MVP — and MIP.
"Everybody's focus is different," said Posey, a nine-year veteran. "His, I must say, is the best I've ever been around."
Pierce suffered through all those down years. He knows the difference Garnett has made.
He was asked about Garnett's MVP chances, so he took a reporter's pad and pen to make his case before last Wednesday night's game against Washington in which Garnett had 22 points and 14 rebounds.
"Give me this. And then I'll give it to you after the game," he said, flipping through the pages. "It's going to take all this."