Passing Into Greatness

Everything's going the Timberwolves' way. But is everything enough?

Too long in the shadow of his more famous friend and benefactor, Kevin McHale, coach Flip Saunders is enjoying his finest season in Minnesota. It's one thing to make a horrible team respectable, as Saunders and McHale had done during their first couple of years at the helm, and quite another to resurrect a squad that was on the brink of disintegration, having lost two of its top three players the previous season. When the Wolves posted gaudy assist-to-turnover ratios early in Saunders's tenure, it was easy to attribute the credit to the club's wunderkind point guard Marbury. But now that Minnesota has actually improved upon those numbers with a much different floor general in Terrell Brandon, Saunders's offensive prowess should be given its due.

He benefits from having a coachable superstar such as Garnett setting an example on the court and an outspoken motivator like Sam Mitchell setting the tone in the locker room. But Saunders has earned the loyalty and respect of those two, and he has managed to be a "player's coach" without conceding any lapse in discipline or (recently, at least) mental toughness. It could be argued that Saunders was too slow to pull Peeler from the starting lineup, yet the coach's decision to feed his enigmatic shooting guard plenty of minutes, even off the bench, has paid off in a Peeler resurgence over the past six weeks. Even more impressive, Saunders's daily work with backup point guard Bobby Jackson during the off-season rebuilt Jackson's confidence, enabling him to pare the weaknesses (shooting, fancy passing) and hone the strengths (defensive quickness, penetration) in his game. At the end of last year, who would have thought the Wolves could beat Indiana and Utah back-to-back with Jackson at the point?

Finally, the Wolves' team chemistry is at an all-time high. Sure, nothing succeeds like success, especially when you've got fresh memories of a horrendous eight-game losing streak. But this team seems primed to weather the inevitable valleys that await them over the next three months. The pecking order is well established, with KG and Brandon (in that order) on top. As for the role players, some extremely positive examples are currently being set. Joe Smith, who is ideally suited to be a power forward (or even a tall small forward) and who is awaiting a contract extension, has served as a backup center without complaint, scrapping for rebounds and deploying his body like a punching bag to draw charging fouls on opposing behemoths. Sam Mitchell, who has long prided himself as a fourth-quarter warrior, has seen those minutes diminish at the expense of Sealy and (more irksome) Peeler without flashing his temper. Szczerbiak, the cocky rookie who was the team's second-best player during the season's opening month, still busts his tail and has actually started to pass more despite falling out of Saunders's regular rotation. And Peeler has responded to his role off the bench with a confidence and energy that was lacking for more than a year.

Simply put, this is a sure-fire playoff team--and perhaps one that can progress beyond the opening round for the first time in franchise history. Minnesota faces an easier schedule during the second half of the season, and if the team manages to leapfrog over Utah and San Antonio in the Midwest Division, they'll earn a first-round home-court advantage against the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Otherwise, Wolves fans should pray for a seventh seeding come playoff time, which would likely match up the team with either San Antonio or (better yet) Utah. The alternative would likely be an eighth or a sixth seed, which would probably land Portland or the Lakers on the road in the first round. Great passing offense or not, that would spell exit.

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