Kevin Garnett needed help. No, not just with points, rebounds, assists, defense, playoff victories—little things like that. Help with the pregame theatrics. In seasons past Garnett performed his psych-up ritual on the sideline as a solo act, stomping his feet, clapping his powdered hands, gazing skyward, doing everything short of setting his facial hair on fire before finally joining the extras at center court, tastefully tardy.
Ah, but now Garnett has a couple of supporting actors who can match his histrionics. During introductions swingman Latrell Sprewell and point guard Sam Cassell embrace as enthusiastically as lost lovers meeting on a Paris boulevard. As the tip-off nears, Sprewell walks out first, cornrows neatly arranged, serious as an angina attack, ready to rumble. Then Cassell strides onto the floor, sweat glistening on his bald head, joy in his eyes, rubbing his palms together as he selects a target, or targets, for his nonstop chatter. And in a few seconds...yes, Kevin is here! The stage is set! Game on!
Beyond the dramatic upgrade, the arrival of Spree and Sam has brought something far more compelling to the Minnesota Timberwolves: With their help, the team is poised to make a Beamonesque jump in the Western Conference. Playoff futility-seven straight first-round exits—haunts the T-Wolves, yet they believe they can soar all the way to the Finals, refuting the notion that a team must move incrementally toward a championship. "Well," says Cassell, "they've been taking baby steps around here for years. It's time for a leap? The best evidence of their progress: a 40-16 record at week's end that was third to the Sacramento Kings' 40-14 and the Indiana Pacers' 41-15.
Sprewell and Cassell have aided and abetted the estimable Garnett so well that Minnesota's whole is better than the sum of its parts, and those parts are better than ever. Through Sunday, Garnett (24.9 points per game) and Cassell (21.0) were surpassing their career highs in scoring, and Sprewell (17.9) was averaging more than he had in three of his last five seasons. Certainly general manager Kevin McHale, no raving optimist, is pleased with his team's progress. "We have size," he says. "We have scoring. We have defense. We have speed. We can play up-tempo or grind it out. We have enough pieces. Of course, as my old friend Bill Walton always says [ McHale goes into a Walton impersonation], 'You have to do it at the biggest of moments in the biggest of times.' But I look at this team and think we can."
Still, there's a long way to go, and Minnesota does have issues, primarily the reintegration of two erstwhile starters into the rotation, point guard Troy Hudson (out much of the season with a sprained right ankle) and small forward Wally Szczerbiak (out the first 53 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot). "That's our million-dollar question," says Garnett. Hudson is a frenetic gunner who roars around picks like Tony Stewart around the Daytona oval, ready to fire—a sharp contrast to Cassell, who seeks his own shot, too, but probes and measures and slows down the game. Szczerbiak, who returned last Thursday to a standing ovation in a 92-75 win over Sacramento at the Target Center, has pouted in the past when he didn't get enough touches, an even greater likelihood now that Sprewell and Cassell are so prominent in the offense.
Factor in center Michael Olowokandi—who, after missing two months because of arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, came back last Friday in an 88-87 road win over the Detroit Pistons—and, well, that's a lot more mouths to feed. But what team, even in the powerful Western Conference, does not have issues? The Kings must see if Chris Webber's return this month (from a left knee injury and an eight-game suspension, five for failure to comply with the league's drug policy) messes up their chemistry. The champion San Antonio Spurs must find a consistent scorer to complement Tim Duncan. And the Los Angeles Lakers must learn whether Karl Malone's recovery this month from a sprained right knee restores order to a team disrupted by the potential lame-duck status of Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson.
"I saw Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper figure out a way to play together," says McHale, speaking of the Lakers' championship teams of the 1980s, "so I'm not going out on a limb here to say that bringing back Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson is no big deal." Sacramento sixth man Bobby Jackson agrees. "Getting Szczerbiak back is huge for them because they've been this good without a true three," he said after getting rocked by the T-Wolves. "This is a team that could definitely be there at the end of the season."
In fact, the Timberwolves will be even stronger when all their returnees are back for five reasons.
1. The stylistic difference between Hudson and Cassell will keep teams off-balance, and playing them together will provide an antidote to good small-guard teams such as the Kings (with Jackson and Mike Bibby) and the Lakers (with Gary Payton and Derek Fisher).
2. The 6'7" Szczerbiak provides a much-needed long-range dimension to a team that through Sunday had made only 197 threes, third-fewest in the league.
3. At 34 and 33, respectively, Cassell and Sprewell will be fresher down the stretch once their minutes per game are cut from the upper 30s to the lower 30s.
4. McHale and coach Flip Saunders have made it clear that Hudsonand Szczerbiak have to earn back their playing time. "Brining guys back is harder on a losing team because there's finger-pointing and confusion," says McHale. "But when you've been playing well and the guys coming back start complaining, you just say, 'We were winning without you. So shape up.'" Szczerbiak says he's fine with that. "I know my role is different," he says. "This team is so close right now, nothing can upset it."
5. Garnett has the will to make it so. "It's historically true that a team with major new parts needs time to blend before it can contend," says Saunders. "But how about the Lakers in 1979? Magic changed them right away through his personality and leadership. Kevin has those same gifts."
This is Garnett's ninth season, but his and Magic's situations are similar. Though teammates refer to him as Big Ticket, or just Ticket, the 27-year-old Garnett is still in many ways the Kid, his energy and charisma defining—nay, dominating—the franchise. Sprewell and Cassell will play follow-the-leader only if the leader is someone they truly respect. After signing a five-year, $100 million extension over the summer, the 6'11" Garnett ended the week leading the league in rebounding (14.1 per game) and ranking fourth in scoring, and he was the favorite to win his first MVP award. In the face of those credentials, as Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni puts it, "Sam and Latrell are O.K. with not being alpha dog."
None of the three are shy about expressing their opinions, but Garnett is the only one with carte blanche to be really critical, as he is from time to time of Cassell. After Sudden Sam jacked up a few unwarranted jumpers against the Kings, KG got in his face with a message that could be interpreted as, "Samuel, perhaps you could show a tad more discretion in your shot selection." Only Garnett did it in fewer words, a couple of which had four letters.
They are different personalities: Sprewell, quiet and intense; Cassell, playful and outgoing; Garnett, imperious and private for the most part but thoughtful and eloquent when he takes the time. (To many, Sprewell has been the biggest surprise, a generous and dedicated teammate, "a coach on the floor," according to Szczerbiak.) Together the Big Three have formed one of the NBAs most unlikely mutual-admiration societies. They didn't know one another well before McHale made the summer deals that brought Cassell from the Milwaukee Bucks and Sprewell from the New York Knicks, but Cassell says, "It's like we were just waiting to get together." Separately, they talk about their synergy.
"There was never a question that this was Kevin's team," Sprewell says. "He's the $100 million man, so to speak. Not even so to speak. But he deserves every penny."
"Kevin Garnett is a guy who cares about your feelings," says Cassell. "He respects the last guy on the team. No one gets treated different. You want to know why this is working? That's why it's working."
"I'm having a lot more fun than I did in yesteryears," says Garnett. "When it seems like you're the only option on a team, it gets to be hard. It used to be that I had to score, then come down on the other end and guard the best player. I'm not saying I don't focus as intently now, but with Sam and 'Trell here, it's not as much detail."
"What I didn't understand before was KG's basketball knowledge and awareness," Cassell says. "He's a guy who studies the tendencies of every single player in the league. Nothing gets past him. You don't see that in a young guy, a guy of 27."
"It was Kevin's all-around game that impressed me, the things you don't see unless you play with somebody," says Sprewell. "He can post, he can shoot, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he passes, he runs the floor, he makes free throws. What player in the league does that? Tim [ Duncan] rebounds and defends and blocks shots, but he can't do it out on the perimeter like Kevin."
"Kevin is the best player in this league by far" Cassell says. "He can guard any player, big or small, slow or quick. Before I came here, I thought he was in the top three. Now there's no question he's at the top."
"Spree and Sam have made the game easier for me, just knowing you have different weapons for combat," says Garnett. "When I think of slashers I think of [the Memphis Grizzlies'] James Posey and [the Toronto Raptors'] Vince Carter. 'Trell is right there with them."
"There is almost nobody left with a mid-range game except Sam," Sprewell says. "He almost never gets to the basket and almost never shoots a three but finds a way to get it done in that middle area."
"Spree and [reserve frontcourtman] Mark Madsen are the two most intense players I've ever witnessed," says Garnett. "They're energetic for all 48 minutes, and even after the game you still see it on their faces. You ask, Where does it come from? Because I know I'm pretty intense. It's like being at the Hoover Dam or something. I mean, it's a beautiful thing."
"I thought Spree was crazy like me, but it's a different kind of crazy with him," Cassell says. "He's not outgoing, not a rah-rah type. What he does is he makes it personal, man against man. Somebody scores on him, the man is upset, just fuming. You take Spree's emotion, my emotions, Big Ticket's emotions and stuff all that together? It's the atom bomb."
"At some point in almost every game, one of the three of us will carry the team for a while," Sprewell says. "And when all three of us get it going, we're really tough to stop. Each one of us commands a certain amount of attention, and we're willing to share the ball, so it's no mystery why we've helped each other."
"We are three players who wanted to learn each other's games," says Garnett. "When you're inspired like that, great things can happen. It's like a spreading fire. Something's on fire.... Oh, my God! It's over here! Now it's over there! That's the best way I can explain it."
"It's up to Kevin [he means Garnett, not McHale], but the way I see it, we'll be around for a long time together," Cassell says. "There's talk that me and Spree are getting old. Yeah? Well, we are kicking these young guys' asses!'
"This is the best chemistry I've seen on a team since my second year [1993-94], with Golden State," says Sprewell. "We had the same kind of camaraderie, guys who cared about each other. I wouldn't say I miss the Knicks, though I do miss New York City. But I am totally happy here. Winning means everything. I've never been on a team with a record this good at this stage of the season."
The T-Wolves are an isosceles triangle, Garnett its long base, Cassell and Sprewell the equal sides. After Hudson made his return in a Feb. 17 game against Phoenix, he dressed quietly by his locker as a throng of reporters waited to chat with Garnett. "See you tomorrow, everyone," Hudson said, then smiled to himself as he realized that no one was paying him any mind. Yes, things will be fine in Minnesota as long as everyone pays heed to the basic geometry.