MIAMI -- It's not as if he arrived in the underbelly of the team's chartered flight in a cardboard box, wrapped with tape highlighting the word "fragile."
But the Nets may find themselves treating Kevin Garnett like a piece of fine art in the final six games of the regular season, protecting him to ensure there's no flaws in their veteran merchandise when they trot him out for the playoffs late next week.
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Although the 37-year-old made it clear that "I'm cool. I'm cool. I'm cool" before Monday's practice at AmericanAirlines Arena, Jason Kidd is sticking to the predetermined script.
Kidd said Garnett won't play Tuesday night when the Nets (42-34) go for a sweep of their four-game regular-season series with the Heat (53-23). He'll be in uniform for the finale of the Nets' three-game road trip against the Magic Wednesday night.
The Nets are trying to walk a fine line with Garnett, and he understands what's most important as he tries to knock off five weeks of rust. He returned Sunday after missing 19 games because of back spasms. "To be healthy, to be strong," Garnett said. "To be able to build toward obviously the rhythm coming into the playoffs. Those are more of the primaries, and I'm working toward that right now."
In a season in which he's had to play musical chairs with his lineups, it's hard to blame Kidd for placing Garnett in Bubble Wrap. His players have missed a combined 161 games because of injuries, leading to those revolving lineups. So as they head toward the regular-season finish line, the Nets' physical well-being is of optimum importance.
"It's good to have everybody healthy," Deron Williams said. "I think that's why 'Ticket' took his time getting back. We know we need him for the playoffs. We need everybody at full strength for the playoffs, and I don't know what the next six games entail in terms of playing time and how [Kidd's] going to do that, but we want to try to get everybody as healthy as possible and go in with a full head of steam."
The temperature in that water vapor rises with Garnett on the floor. "Definitely," Joe Johnson said. "KG is a big part of what we do. Having him out there is such a difference, especially defensively. The way he communicates and keeps everybody in the right spots, and offensively talking as well, setting picks. So he does a great job when he's out there, and so it's great having him back."
Garnett's voice off the court is just as unmistakable. He keeps it light in a way only he can, using enough salty language to make a sailor do a double-take or laugh out loud. His presence is unlike no one else's, and it's surely been missed.
"We've talked about what he means to this team, energy-wise and leadership-wise, and we play well on the court," Williams said. "But just having him in the locker room, having him on the bus, it's great."
But the Nets won't have him available Tuesday night, meaning they'll have to find a way to improve on their 14-5 record since Feb. 27 without him. They've proved that even withoutGarnett, they can knock off the two-time defending champs, as demonstrated by their 96-95 victory here last month.
Still, they're not ready to proclaim some sort of psychological advantage over LeBron & Co. Just because they're 3-0 against Miami this season doesn't guarantee postseason success should they meet in a seven-game series.
"We have to wait and see," Paul Pierce said. "It really means nothing in the playoffs. The last couple years , we beat them three times in the regular season also and wound up losing to them in the playoffs.
"It all comes down to they have the experience as a unit together and they are the champions. So they're the team to beat."