- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — In his 2 1/2 seasons in Washington, former Wizards coach Flip Saunders often smiled wistfully when talking about the best player he ever coached, Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett.

Drafted by Minnesota out of high school at age 19, Garnett teamed with Saunders to lead the Timberwolves to eight playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference final in 2004. Garnett was voted MVP that year.

Fast forward to 2012, and Saunders and Garnett are reunited — Garnett as a 36-year-old veteran nearing the end of his career and Saunders as a playoff adviser to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a longtime friend. Right now, their focus is on Game 7 of their series against Philadelphia on Saturday. At stake is a trip to the Eastern Conference final.

“The biggest thing is that it’s nice to see him playing at the level he’s playing,” Saunders said of Garnett. “For me, it’s just nice to be back in a situation where it’s how it was 10 years ago in seeing how he acts and how he prepares. I told Kevin, ‘It’s like being a proud father,’ just to see how he’s progressed.”

For Saunders, working with the Celtics gave him not only the opportunity to reconnect with Garnett and Rivers, but be a part of a winning franchise again.

Before his disappointing turn in Washington, Saunders had a record of 587-396 and 11 playoff appearances in his 17-year career. Saunders was replaced by Randy Wittman in January after a 2-15 start and a 51-130 record overall.

At the trading deadline, the Wizards made several moves that might have made a difference for Saunders as they parted ways with the maturity-challenged JaVale McGee and Nick Young and added solid veteran center Nene.

Saunders seems to have put his time with the Wizards behind him and had no interest in elaborating on his coaching stint in Washington, preferring to focus on his work with the Celtics coaching staff.

“I’ve talked to him on a couple of occasions, but he’s here for the coaches, to give feedback to them,” said guard Ray Allen. “I’m sure he has an impact with them in meetings, talking about things we can do better.”

Saunders and Rivers have been friends since Saunders was tapped by USA Basketball to be the coach of the 2001 Goodwill Games team. Rivers joined him as one of the team’s assistant coaches, along with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and University of Dayton coach Oliver Purnell.

“Me and Doc, we’ve known each other a long time,” Saunders said. “He was my assistant coach at the Goodwill Games, and he asked me to come in and just kind of be another set of eyes. I watch games and give him perspective on what I see [the Celtics] doing, and what I see the other team doing, and give him an idea of what I would do. He’s given me a great opportunity.”

The arrangement suits Rivers as well, as he relies on Saunders to give him an additional point of view from an experienced coach.

“It’s been great. We have a great relationship,” Rivers said. “We worked together in the Goodwill Games what feels like a hundred years ago, and we talk all the time. It’s really nice that he doesn’t have a competitive reason for talking, because we’re on the same team right now, and it’s been a lot of fun.

“I told him when he was let go by Washington, ‘Listen, if you feel like it, come around and be part of the staff.’ “

Saunders was reluctant to focus too much on his plans, although he did address the topic when he first arrived in Boston. A Boston Globe article recently quoted Saunders as expressing a desire to become a head coach again, but he’s in no hurry.

“Right now, I’m just kind of doing what I’m doing and waiting to see what happens,” Saunders said.