At this year’s trade deadline, the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t so much acquire Kevin Garnett as his legend. He is, without question, the greatest player in Timberwolves franchise history. Yet with Garnett’s best basketball behind him, there’s all the more reason to dwell on what he means to the city of Minneapolis and the Timberwolves as opposed to what he might still contribute on the floor.
In essence, Minnesota acquired Garnett for the power and influence of his homecoming. The moment wasn’t wasted on Wednesday night in Minnesota's 97-77 win against the Washington Wizards, Garnett's first game back in a Timberwolves uniform:
There’s bound to be sugar-coating on any video tribute, but it really cannot be overstated how much Garnett did for Minnesota in his first term. He spent 12 years in Minnesota and was named the league’s MVP in 2004. He is the franchise leader by a wide margin in games played, minutes played, points, field goals, field goal attempts, free throws, free throw attempts, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Garnett’s years were the best the Timberwolves ever had, and while a few minutes of video could never capture that fully, the emotional beats of the Timberwolves' tribute did at least tap into the mood of the evening.
Garnett’s presence, after all, packed an arena that had been sparse all season. Fans stood anxiously as the team, a conference-worst 12-43, went through routine warmups:
There is a pulse here tonight. Fans have been standing last 15 minutes while final moments of warmups now tick down and nobody sits down — Jerry Zgoda (@JerryZgoda) February 26, 2015
Minnesota predictably tried to work the ball to Garnett on the game’s opening possession, but squandered some of the energy in the building as Washington’s Garrett Temple poked the ball away from Kevin Martin. This kicked off what would be an inauspicious start: an early 18-3 deficit en route to a 20-11 opening quarter. Garnett clanked his first trio of shot attempts, all long jumpers he had hit many times before. In those opening 12 minutes, Minnesota played to what it was: unbalanced and outmatched in the face of a superior team.
What followed cannot be divorced from Garnett's influence, if only because the game was played in his shadow. Minnesota technically broke even with Garnett on the floor for the day. It had more prolific producers in every statistical category, save blocked shots. Yet it was because Garnett returned that the crowd (and, by extension, the young Timberwolves) never faded. His every entrance and exit was greeted with a standing ovation, his every deflection met with roaring applause. Garnett's impeccable approval rating gave Minnesota a margin for error on a night when it stalled in getting over the hump.
Yet by halftime, the Timberwolves' had already erased their early deficit. A 31-point second quarter tied the score at 42, after which Martin (28 points on just 15 shots) and Andrew Wiggins (19 points) did the heavy lifting. Every Minnesota basket seemed crippling on a night when Washington struggled for offense. Credit the lively Timberwolves for staying engaged, though the Wizards seemed sickly by equal measure. This team, once considered an Eastern Conference contender, is in rotten form. Minnesota capitalized with verve. This was what Flip Saunders, as team president and head coach, hoped for in engineering Garnett's return. This was the kind of spark that no losing team could manufacture so late into the season.
With it, the Timberwolves held the Wizards to their lowest scoring total for the season. John Wall, who finished with only one more point (five) than turnover (four), had all but folded by game's end. Minnesota ate up eagerly whatever momentum was to be had in the game. Washington was left to its own devices, scoring in fits and starts.
Garnett tallied five points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots in playing just 19 minutes. This wasn’t the Garnett of old, clearly. Those in attendance didn't mind much. Garnett was lauded at every turn, his name chanted and his play cheered. This was the allure of his homecoming. He could have ridden off into the sunset in Brooklyn. He could have tutored young players on most any team. But only in Minnesota could he find this kind of affectionate glow, dormant through the years but never extinguished.
GALLERY: Rare photos of Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett