PHILADELPHIA - It's roughly an hour before tipoff and Kevin Garnett is sashaying from the trainer's room in uniform, heading toward his locker on the other side of the room, when he has a brief encounter.
A longtime NBA employee wants to show Garnett something on a mobile device, and after the employee fumbles with it for the amount of time it takes someone to sneeze, Garnett keeps it real as only the 37-year-old veteran can.
"You don't even know how to work the [darn] phone!" Garnett blurts before scurrying off to his destination.
Garnett was in the mix again. No doubt he was thrilled that he finally could suit up and play after sitting out the previous 19 games because of back spasms. The Nets had their emotional leader for the first time since Feb. 27, and he looked pretty good Saturday night in their 105-101 win over the 76ers at Wachovia Center, which was sealed when Marcus Thornton sank two free throws with 7.3 seconds left.
"It's been tough. I've never had an injury like this before,'' Garnett said. "But I've been patient with it and I've been working really hard to get back to the conditioning and I've still got a ways to go and I felt strong enough to give it a try tonight."
Garnett appeared fluid, not the least bit stiff, and didn't play like someone who hadn't been in a competitive contest in five-plus weeks. In an efficient 13:12 before taking a seat for good in the third quarter, he nailed his first four shots and had 10 points, four rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal, stepping in front of a post pass intended for one of the roster full of no-names on the 76ers (17-60).
Those on the outside might have been stunned that Garnett was in such a rhythmic flow so soon, but he wasn't.
"Obviously, I'm nowhere I want to be, but I felt good," Garnett said. "I felt strong. It's been a journey to get back to this point. I'm just trying to contribute at this point."
He added: "Man, it just feels good to be able to move."
Perhaps most encouraging was the two-handed dunk Garnett threw down in the second quarter. He set a screen near the three-point line for Deron Williams and rolled toward the basket, and Williams -- who led the Nets with 19 points and nine assists -- lofted a pass in the direction of the rim. Garnett caught it with both hands and stuffed it home to give the Nets (42-34) a 50-40 lead.
"Man, that looked good," coach Jason Kidd said. "It looked like he was 18, 19 years old. He looked great. He was dunking the ball, his jump shot looked great, so he looked like he was playing at a very high level. He understands what this time of the year means."
Garnett said he wanted to play against the Raptors on March 10 but experienced a setback that kept him out until Saturday night. "I don't even want to talk about it," he said. "But it was all systems fail. Aw, man, it wasn't a good time for me."
Garnett's teammates certainly were thrilled to have their enforcer back. Even though they were 14-5 without Garnett's services, his importance can't be understated. He's their most vocal guy on the floor defensively, and part of the reason the Nets brought him to Brooklyn along with Paul Pierce was to instill some toughness and inject the team with some championship pedigree.
"It was good, man," Williams said. "It was good to have Ticket back. He just means a lot to this team, emotionally, leadership-wise -- not only what he can do on the court. So we definitely have been missing him out there and it's good to have him back and getting his feet back wet again."
When he wasn't in the game, Garnett sat on the bench in a makeshift chair that would've made Phil Jackson proud, given that it was a mock version of the one he used during his days coaching the Lakers.
Garnett had two extra seat cushions stacked on top of his chair, propping him up so high that he towered over everyone else as if he were Lurch of "The Addams Family" fame. He was going to do whatever he could to keep his back loose.
"You take for granted certain movements and certain things, and I definitely did," Garnett said. "I have a newfound respect for it."
"To be able to continue to play, and do the thing I love and play with passion, and the thing that I think I was born to do -- at least one of them -- and to contribute . . . I keep on saying that because the guys have been playing unbelievable and I just didn't want to come in here and knock off any rhythm. But I felt good and I felt solid. A couple of plays, I had to blow the cobwebs off . . . I was not nervous, but I was really anxious to get out here today. So it was a positive day. We won, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters."
With Garnett on board again, the Nets are whole again, giving them 14 healthy players for the first time since the penultimate contest of their six-game "circus trip." So they can use the remainder of this three-game trek, which has stops in Miami and Orlando on tap, to work on re-establishing some cohesiveness with their veteran big man.
Garnett wasn't ready to divulge the Nets' next course of action for him just yet.
"I'm going to follow my plan," he said. "They've got a plan for me and I'm going to follow it. So stay tuned, all right?"