Wait 'Til... This Year?

YES, THOSE REALLY are your Minnesota Timberwolves playing the most resilient, talented, and exciting basketball in the history of the franchise. And no, this heartening ascent to the upper reaches of mediocrity is not likely to dissipate as the dolor of deep winter sets in. Despite a hellish early schedule, injuries to three of the team's five starters, and the catastrophic play of $11.8 million free agent center Stoyko Vrankovic, the Wolves are in the play-off hunt with a franchise-best 14-18 record that includes victories in six of their last seven games. In a year when 35 wins will probably secure a play-off berth in the watered-down Western Conference, Wolves's fans can finally look forward to some meaningful games down the stretch this spring.

How does a team renowned for its chronic chaos and despair suddenly rip off six wins over a two-week period? Most obviously, the Wolves's troika of budding stars--in order of current value, Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta, and Stephon Marbury--are all healthy and playing with an unselfish maturity that synergizes their considerable talents. But it is almost as important that the team's brain trust has essentially acknowledged that Vrankovic has been an expensive mistake; while reducing Vrankovic's playing time, coach Flip Saunders has solidified his substitution rotation, enhancing the roles of three players--Cherokee Parks, Sam Mitchell, and Terry Porter--who have all significantly raised the caliber of their game. As a result, the Wolves are spreading out and moving the ball better on offense, and playing tenacious, intimidating defense, particularly in the fourth quarter. Right now, this is a team to be reckoned with.

Let's begin with the guys coming off the bench. It's no coincidence that the Wolves really began to hit their stride when Saunders gave Parks, who had previously earned his reputation as a cream puff, extended minutes in place of Vrankovic even against a big physical center like Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers. Parks will never have Vrankovic's raw strength, sinew, and shot-blocking ability on defense, but he has compensated with surprisingly active feet and hands (he leads the club in steals per minute played) and superior knowledge and instincts when it comes to the team's defensive rotations. But where Parks has really provided a lift is on offense. He has a reliable mid-range jump shot that lures opposing centers out from under the basket. That creates more space around the hoop for forwards Garnett and Gugliotta. Parks also moves well without the ball and has soft hands for a big man, skills that make him a scoring threat when opposing centers drop off him to double-cover Gugs or Garnett.

In the fourth quarter of a close game, however, neither Parks nor Vrankovic are usually on the court. That's when Saunders deploys Mitchell alongside Garnett and Gugs in what becomes an undersized but remarkably effective front line of defense. Being counted upon to shoulder these crunch-time minutes is the sort of subtle but crucial role that's tailor-made for Mitchell's proud, blue-collar virtues. The man's style of play is the antithesis of grace, but whether opposing coaches try to mismatch him with quick shooting guards or beefy centers (both are common responses), nobody is allowed an easy basket.

Mitchell practices the craft of banging as well as anyone in the NBA. He knows the idiosyncrasies of particular referees, along with the unwritten NBA protocols and hierarchies that help determine what constitutes a foul and when it is more or less likely to be called. He rubs up against that fine line between playing tough defense and committing a foul, harassing and annoying his opponents in ways large and small--especially late in a close game, when players are already tired and stressed. Because he plays that gritty, underdog style on a consistent basis, and is a veteran who knows how to whine and cajole with the officials, he gets away with things most players, including Parks and Vrankovic, would get whistled for. Mitchell's offense likewise favors efficacy over glamour. Ignore him and he'll usually sink the open jump shot; foul him and the odds are good he'll convert the free throws. You may barely notice him, but Steady Sam is currently third on the team in minutes played.

Here's another pretty surprising statistic: The Wolves have won all four games that starting shooting guard Doug West has missed due to injury. Much of the credit for this belongs to Terry Porter, who at the ripe old age of 33 may be the team's most improved player this year. Last season Porter signed too late to attend training camp. He was coming off a serious ankle injury, and coming to a new team after more than a decade with Portland. When Micheal Williams continued his injury-related sabbatical, Porter was thrust into extensive minutes running an unfamiliar offense and guarding lightning-quick opponents as the Wolves's starting point guard. It wasn't pretty. But with the teenaged Marbury now ensconced as Minnesota's point guard, Porter's playing time has dropped to a more effective 15-20 minutes per game. And with West out, he has proven to be more valuable to the team at shooting guard than he is at the point.

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