Timberwolves Have Target on Their Back

April 18, 2003|J.A. Adande

Poor Minnesota Timberwolves.

What else can you say? A franchise without a playoff series victory finally gets to begin postseason play at home.

Against the Lakers. The three-time NBA champion Lakers. Who have won 16 of their last 18 playoff road games.

"I just feel bad for Minnesota," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said.

How can you not? The Timberwolves have been cursed by fate, picked on by the NBA office and smacked around by playoff opponents.

Their problems always seem to begin after the regular season ends.

On May 20, 2000, forward Malik Sealy was killed in a car accident; his car was struck by a drunk driver heading down the wrong side of the road.

In October of that year, before the next regular season had begun, NBA Commissioner David Stern came down hard on the Timberwolves for a secret contract with Joe Smith that violated the league's salary-cap rules. He fined them $3.5 million and took away five draft picks -- the league restored the 2005 pick during the 2001-02 season. Under-the-table promises to reward players down the road if they accepted a smaller initial contract so the team could squeeze in under the cap were believed to be commonplace. Minnesota, though, actually had the deal on paper.

And then there's that little stumbling block called the first round of the playoffs. The Timberwolves have qualified for the playoffs for seven consecutive years. Only once have they managed to win more than one game. They have lost to Houston, Seattle, Portland, Dallas and San Antonio twice.

The Timberwolves actually matched up well with Portland and San Antonio because their best player, power forward Kevin Garnett, played the same position as the best players on those teams, Rasheed Wallace and Tim Duncan. And in 1999 they even managed to steal home-court advantage from the Spurs by taking Game 2 in San Antonio. But that just seemed to make the eventual champions angry; they gave up only 71 and 85 points to Minnesota the next two games.

It was supposed to be different this season.

The Timberwolves posted a franchise-best 51-31 record, good enough for fourth place in the Western Conference. They were on track to play the Portland Trail Blazers, whom they beat three times.

The Lakers were supposed to finish sixth and take on the Dallas Mavericks. Then an extremely rare event occurred. The Clippers actually won a game with playoff implications. They beat the Trail Blazers while the Lakers were winning at Golden State, a chain of events that brought the heavy jackets out of the Lakers' closets and wiped the smiles off the Timberwolves' faces.

The Lakers wound up with the fifth spot, Portland dropped to sixth and now the Timberwolves will get a dose of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in playoff mode.

If Garnett is the league's most valuable player -- he'd get my vote -- then they'd better give him the trophy quickly because the Timberwolves won't be around much longer.

Some think Tim Duncan deserves his second consecutive MVP award because he was the best player on the league's best team. Others were mesmerized by Kobe's scoring spree in February and believe he should get the hardware because he lifted the Lakers back into the playoffs.

Garnett did more with less. Duncan has a solid unit around him, including underrated point guard Tony Parker. And the Lakers wouldn't have needed such a spectacular run by Bryant if they hadn't gotten off to that 11-19 start on his watch.

Bryant himself said that Garnett should win because he and the Timberwolves have been consistent throughout the season. Garnett averaged 23 points, 13.4 rebounds and six assists.

He is his team's best low-post threat and defensive interior presence. He initiates the offense and often winds up guarding the other team's best player, whether he is a point guard or center.

His top sidekick, Wally Szczerbiak, sat out 30 games because of injuries. The team's supposed starting point guard, Terrell Brandon, was sidelined the entire season, leaving Clipper castoff Troy Hudson to man the point.

Watching this group recently I wondered how they could even make the playoffs, let alone make the second round. The only answer is Garnett.

The Timberwolves' home-court advantage is the only element of doubt in this series -- as in doubtful the Lakers will sweep. The Timberwolves have a four-game winning streak against the Lakers in Target Center, where the fan base includes ace music producer Jimmy Jam, Jesse "the Body Politic" Ventura and some crazy guy who kneels by his courtside seat and swats his rolled-up program on the floor as if he were coaching the team.

The Timberwolves are a great shooting team at home. "They're really going to put a lot of pressure on our defense," Laker guard Derek Fisher said. "We'll try to pick ourselves up from the cellar of the NBA's defensive teams."

But the Timberwolves have won only once in L.A. since December 1993.

I don't see that streak ending.

Or the streak of first-round exits, for that matter.

J.A. Adande can be reached at

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