BOSTON -- Maybe, just maybe, Joakim Noah doesn't think Kevin Garnett is so bad.
There is a little piece of him that actually likes Garnett for intensity and appreciates his passion that gets under the skin of players around the league.
But before we get to those underlying emotions, let's go back to his sentiments on the surface.
On Friday the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls tangled in yet another battle. This time, the Derrick Rose-less Bulls beat the Avery Bradley-less Celtics, 100-99 in overtime. There were plenty of tense moments between Garnett and Noah and the hostility could be felt across the court.
Following the game, Noah discussed limiting Garnett to 5-for-16 shooting by playing tough defense and contesting his shot. Then he went a step further in his analysis.
"He's a hell of a competitor," said Noah. "He's always on some bulls. (What does that mean?) Just trying to throw elbows, cheap shots, just trying to get you off your game. But he's a vet, he's been doing this a long time, but it's alright."
There was a time when Noah deemed Garnett "a dirty player." Reflecting on that now, Noah said, "I feel like I was young, maybe talking a little bit too much. What happens on the court should stay on the court and I was pretty vocal about it but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is winning or losing basketball games. It doesn't matter, you don't have to like your opponents, it's alright."
When asked if he thought Garnett crosses the line when he plays, Noah replied no, before adding, "When we lose, I feel like he crosses the line. But since we've been beating their a, I'm cool with it."
Noah is now 27, about to turn 28 next month. He is in his sixth NBA season, long enough for him to know how to manage his emotions. He has learned opposing players are not there to be his friend. No matter who he looked up to as a child, unless they are wearing the same uniform as him, they are out to beat him. That was a challenging reality for him to understand early on and one of the reasons why he was so taken aback by and vocal about Garnett's demeanor.
Coming to that realization has given him an appreciation for Garnett. It is a feeling wrapped up tightly in layers of competitiveness, but it's there nonetheless.
"The thing is, when I was a kid I used to wear Kevin Garnett jerseys," he said. "I used to have his poster and his jersey and I would wear it proud. I guess it's part of growing up and being part of the league. You can't be a fan anymore, you've got to compete against these guys. He made me learn that, and I kind of like it, because from that day on, I would never, ever go up to somebody before a game or during a game and show my appreciation or something like that, or show what they meant to me. Because of KG, I will never, ever, ever do that again. It was embarrassing."
Noah refuses to be humiliated on the court. He gets in a zone before playing the Celtics, which begins the day prior to the matchup. Garnett has shut down players before, and Noah will not let himself be one of them. For that, he actually likes taking on the future Hall of Famer.
"Yeah, I do (enjoy playing against someone like Garnett) because I know that if I don't come ready to play, I know that he's going to embarrass me," he said. "I would never, ever go out before a game before I play KG. I would never ever. I'm always ready to play when I play Boston because I know a guy like that, if you don't come ready to play, he will embarrass you."
Garnett and Noah are driven apart by a commonality. They just want to win and their opponent, whether it is a childhood idol or longtime friend, is in their way. Noah doesn't expect to grab coffee with Garnett and get together in the offseason -- "Cool? No, he wants to win and I want to be win. I don't think it will ever be cool," he said -- but now he is at a point in his career where he is able to appreciate their differences that make them similar.
"We've had a lot of battles, but I respect his grind," Noah said. "I respect the way he competes."