The final four of the NBA playoffs has been great. And a player who has done as much as anyone to make it that way has been Boston's Kevin Garnett, recently turned 36.

Garnett has played in 1,318 regular-season and postseason games, and he has worked 55,288 minutes in those games. The operative word is "worked," for the number of those minutes he spent in cruise control might not reach four figures.

He came into the league in 1995 playing with the joy of "Da Kid." Eventually, that turned into anger over the disappointments faced as "The Franchise" in Minnesota, and that has seemed to provide his fuel during the second decade of his career.

He plays with a rage now, looking for any slight to feed his on-court fanaticism, and the admiration for him as a competitor has never been greater than with what we have seen during the 18 games of this Celtics' postseason.

Garnett has averaged 19.9 points and 10.8 rebounds. He is shooting 50 percent (147 of 294) from the field and 80.8 percent (63 of 78) from the line.

He has been magnificent during an NBA championship tournament that initially seemed to carry little hope for the Celtics. Ray Allen was injured, and Paul Pierce was playing in slow motion, and a determined Garnett and a dynamic Rajon Rondo seemed far short of what was needed for the C's to make some noise.

They opened with an ugly 83-74 loss in Atlanta, and it appeared Rajon and the Ancients could be done for the spring in about five games.

The Celtics came back to eliminate the Hawks in six, and then outlasted No. 8 seed Philadelphia in a seven-game series that featured some of the homeliest basketball imaginable.

Miami was next -- a Heat team that had sprung to life to eliminate Indiana in the second round. Dan Shaughnessy, the exceptional sports columnist for the Boston Globe, previewed the series by telling New Englanders that the Celtics had no chance.

There was little reason to question that view after two games in Miami. The Heat chugged to a 93-79 victory in the first game, and then swiped the second, 115-111 in overtime.

What chance did Ye Olde Celtics have to come back from the Game 2 kick in the shins?

Turns out, it's the chance you have when combining the lightning quickness of Rondo with the iron will of Garnett. Everyone was on board, willing to contribute, after two wins in Boston, and then came Game 5 on Tuesday night in Miami:

Celtics 94, Heat 90, with a fourth quarter as maniacal as a sporting contest can get.

When it was over, Garnett was giving the victorious postgame interview to ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke. When asked what fueled him, Garnett included, "Owners talk too much.''

The owner referred to was Atlanta's Michael Gearon, who had called Garnett "an old guy" and "the dirtiest player in the league" before Game 6 of the first round.

The Celtics had played 13 games and won eight since then. And after the most thrilling of those eight, Garnett found himself required to stick a visual fist in Gearon's face.

He goes for 26 points and 11 rebounds. He rises to make LeBron James eat the basketball late in the game. And when the Celtics have secured the improbable 3-2 lead in the Eastern finals, Garnett can still rage over a two-month-old remark from a nitwit owner.

I don't know how he has managed to do it for all these NBA minutes. It should be a lethal mix for an athlete, to have those constant resentments boiling inside the same engine with nonstop ferocity. One would think that one day that shaved head of his would burst from all that combustion.

And yet Kevin Garnett remains the No. 1 competitor I've ever watched -- now more than ever, as in these final games of his Boston contract, he forces one more playoff run from his old gang, and absolute magnificence from the young Rondo.

"This is like a heavyweight bout right here, man,'' Garnett said late on Tuesday night.

This is like Ali vs. Foreman, except in this case the old champ is on the attack, not on the ropes.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM.