Give'Em Howl

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

Table of Contents
May 31, 2004

NBA Playoffs
Photo Credits: John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Give'Em Howl

Led by Kevin Garnett (the intense one) and Latrell Sprewell (the inspired one), the Timberwolves fought back against the up-and-down Lakers in the Western finals

For someone who still answers to the sobriquet of Da Kid, Kevin
Garnett seems old and tired these days. He has taken the
Minnesota Timberwolves two steps further than they've ever gone
in the playoffs--to the Western Conference finals, against the
Los Angeles Lakers--but Garnett, who just turned 28, doesn't
appear to be enjoying the ride. The strain of serving as the
T-Wolves' version of a Swiss army knife has drained joy from his
expressive face and sucked energy from his 7-foot, 240-pound
frame. He is so spent when he goes to the bench that he can
barely lift his arms to acknowledge fist bumps and high fives.

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

But if you watched closely on Sunday night, you could see the
shadow of a smile cross Garnett's face. It happened as he left
Game 2 with 38 seconds remaining and his team on the verge of a
series-tying 89-71 victory at the Target Center. He touched fists
with coach Flip Saunders and--blip--there it was: a slight
raising of the corners of his mouth. Then it was gone, and a
weary look returned. If Da Kid were a musician, he'd be Miles

Perhaps Garnett believes that adopting a stolid bearing is the
only way he can help his injury-plagued team compete against the
high-and-mighty Purple and Gold in a series that many considered
over before it started. Oh, did we say high and mighty? We meant
distracted and disgraceful. Full of themselves after a 97-88
victory in Game 1 last Friday, their fifth straight postseason
win, the Los Angeles Lollygaggers bowed to Minnesota's pressure,
falling behind early and trailing by double digits most of the
second half.

"We didn't expect them to come out with that bravado," said L.A.
coach Phil Jackson. Really? Is there anything in the histories of
Garnett, swingman Latrell Sprewell and even Mark (Mad Dog)
Madsen, a former Laker who's a battle-ready banger off the bench,
to suggest any other response? It was one thing to allow Garnett
his 24 points and 11 rebounds, quite another to roll over after
clutch-shooting Sam Cassell played only the first 43 seconds
because of back spasms and related hip pain. Los Angeles made
heroes out of backup point guard Darrick Martin (15 points and
zero turnovers), shot-addicted forward Wally Szczerbiak (six
field goals on 16 attempts) and perpetually overlooked center
Ervin Johnson (who bumped and banged Shaquille O'Neal despite
giving up two inches and 90 pounds). Upon learning at halftime
that Johnson had outscored O'Neal 5-4, Saunders told his
assistants, "We should get this box score framed."

The Lakers may still win the series--the next two games were
scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday at the Staples Center--and go
on to take the championship. But even if they do, they will be
remembered less as a dominant team than as one in need of
periodic defibrillation during a tempestuous season. Kobe Bryant,
who scored only eight of his game-high 27 points after halftime,
and O'Neal, who finished with 14, copped blase,
we'll-get-'em-at-home attitudes after Game 2. "Blame it on the
rain," O'Neal said when asked about his desultory Game 2 play,
which included 4-of-10 shooting from the floor and 6-of-14 from
the foul line. (That's a song by Milli Vanilli, the immortal
imposters, so feel free to draw your own parallels.)

Oh, what a difference a day makes. On Saturday the contrast
between Shaq's happy-go-lucky Lakers and Garnett's
serious-as-root-canal Timberwolves was stark. After being all but
unstoppable with 27 points and 18 rebounds in the opener, O'Neal
was an engaging, egocentric sideshow after practice, whether
skewering general manager Mitch Kupchak ("I'm the real G.M. of
this team"), holding forth on his legacy ("If I keep playing, my
name will be inscripted in the NBA bible for many years to come")
or assessing his place in the league ("Everybody wants to play
with the Diesel because I make people's games easy"). You know
you're somebody when you refer to yourself in third-person


But even if the Lakers do win the title, they will be remembered less as a dominant team than as one in need of periodic defibrillation during a tempestuous season.


Karl Malone, the 40-year-old power forward who had limited
Garnett's effectiveness in their Game 1 battle (KG had 16 points
and 10 rebounds to the Mailman's 17 and 11), was reveling in his
role as the selfless elder statesman, an ancient who, like
Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, had sacrificed much to
search for the noble prize. Fueled by the Mountain Dew and Red
Bull he drinks before games, Malone not only played physically
("He can still lay the wood on you," said Garnett afterward) but
also reached deep into his bag of tricks--slapping at the ball
when Garnett brought it down in the middle of a move, using his
knees to keep Garnett from establishing good post-up position and
leaking out on the fast break when Garnett did make it to the
hoop. Enjoying himself mightily, Malone refused to divulge his
different strategies for dealing with Garnett and the San Antonio
Spurs' Tim Duncan, whom the Mailman had held to an average of
17.5 points over the last four games of the Western semifinals.
"It's different," he said. "That's all I can tell you right now."

At about the same time Malone was leaving 'em guessing, Garnett
was answering his postpractice questions in a pensive monotone,
weighing his words as carefully as a greengrocer weighs his
broccoli rabe. Garnett usually comes across as honest and
thoughtful--an exception being his comments last week about the
weapons he'd be packing to Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings,
an unfortunate metaphor for which he apologized--yet the chip on
his shoulder is large enough to accommodate the rump of his
315-pound teammate, Oliver Miller. Garnett talked about "being
very wary of people," remembering how "you guys have doubted me"
and emphasizing that negative press is "fuel for me." He was
unable to specify his complaints ("There's so much, I can't even
remember it all"), perhaps because his image is in fact a
positive one, perpetuated by a press that likes and respects him
and overlooks his prima donna primping. No one, not even Michael
Jordan at the height of his fame, takes longer to shower and show
up than KG.

Garnett talked some basketball, too, praising Malone as "probably
the greatest power forward ever to play the game, though
[Minnesota G.M.] Kevin McHale will probably kill me," and
expressing doubt--carefully--about the Game 1 strategy of
deploying him at point guard. "It's not easy to be the point
person, then try to find rhythm somewhere else," he said. "But
it's something I've got to do."

Saunders had moved Garnett to the point because Minnesota was
getting what assistant coach Randy Wittman called
"short-clocked"--that is, taking too long to get into its sets
because of pressure applied to de facto playmakers Sprewell and
Fred Hoiberg. Putting Garnett at the point took care of that, but
it presented other problems because, once past midcourt, his
duties had only just begun. He would usually dribble-handoff to
Sprewell, then run to either block, where he is most comfortable.
Because he also had to set the pick in pick-and-rolls, he would
then dash to the wing or the elbow and set a screen for Sprewell,
Szczerbiak or Hoiberg. If nothing came of that, he might even go
back and grind for position in the low post. Garnett may be
exceptionally quick, but accomplishing all that in less than 24
seconds was a job for the Flash.

The steady play of journeyman Martin, 33, who probably wouldn't
be on the playoff roster if not for an injury to Cassell's
regular-season backup, Troy Hudson, relieved Garnett of the
primary ball-handling responsibility in Game 2. Martin was
confident whether facing down Gary Payton (who had only eight
points and one assist) or ordering Szczerbiak back to the team
huddle, as he did in the first quarter after Wally Wonder
wandered away to put rosin on his hands. Garnett reveled in the
freedom. He roamed here and there, coming out front to handle the
ball from time to time but also posting up, operating from the
corner, or getting open with the help of back picks that Jackson
later hinted were illegal. The T-Wolves made other adjustments as
well, short-clocking L.A. by challenging Payton and Bryant full
court and, rather than conventionally double-teaming O'Neal,
employing a crowding strategy. "I missed too many chippies,"
O'Neal said after the game, ignoring the fact that most of his
chippies came under duress. A verse from Shaq's bible: Thou shalt
not compliment rival defenses or defenders.

Predictably, the most effective crowder was Garnett, whose huge
wingspan enabled him to hassle O'Neal while covering his own man.
Garnett approached that task, as he approaches all tasks, with a
grim mien. It might be nice to see him loosen up and put a little
Lakers lightness into his life. Then again, maybe it's high time
for the Lollygaggers to adopt the look of Da Kid.