Hope After All

Maybe the Timberwolves can get closer to the promised land. Maybe.

After the Timberwolves had overcome Utah for their 15th straight homet victory in a game televised by ESPN last week, coach Flip Saunders said he had a query from the national press corps that he wanted to pass along: Why is the local media so negative? "I'm just telling you what they asked me," Saunders coyly remarked.

Fair enough. Speaking only for myself, I've been down on the Wolves' chances this year because their prospects for bottom-line improvement--getting past the first round of the playoffs--seemed as dire as ever. They play in the brutal Western Conference, where at least a half-dozen teams possess more talent, and are constrained by the salary cap from significantly upgrading their roster. (Even the misinformed scenario I proposed last week--waiting for Kevin Garnett's current contract to expire and adding free agents before re-signing him--isn't possible under league rules.) I suspect similar doubts led the national media (mainly TNT and ESPN) to schedule only three of the Wolves' first 61 games. As a result they have expended inordinate amounts of ink and airtime extolling marquee figures Yao Ming, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant, while giving KG, who has outperformed them all, short shrift.

A dour attitude toward the Timberwolves just makes sense. After watching them roar to 19 wins in their past 22 games, however, I'm tired of favoring my jaded brain over my throbbing heart. Forced to choose, I'd still predict that Minnesota will fall in the first round of the playoffs next month, but that seems less sure than ever before. The Lakers' early-season stumbles have made it likely that the fourth seed in the conference playoffs will not be a member of the league's traditional elite, an unexpected boon to a Wolves squad that looks to finish fourth or fifth. Indeed, if Garnett et al. can manage to win more than half of their next ten games (while running the gauntlet against West Coast opponents, beginning tonight in Seattle), it will be time for us die-hard skeptics to reconsider. At the very least the Wolves have made a mockery of the headline--Hopeless--attached to my season preview back in October. There's hope to be had if you want to embrace it. Here's why.

KG! KG!

I know I keep raving about the guy, but on a team where a number of players have stepped up, Garnett's improvement has been the most significant factor in the Wolves' unexpected success. He has no glaring weaknesses, can play or defend every position on the court, is channeling his emotions more effectively, has stepped up in crunch time, has established himself as a low-post scorer who draws fouls that create free throws, rebounds like a banshee, passes like a wizard, and practices and plays hard every day without getting hurt. Perhaps most importantly, Garnett--like nobody since Magic Johnson--does something on almost every play that improves his teammates. Suffice to say that, on paper, there are at least a dozen teams with more talent than the Wolves. But with KG as the inexorable catalyst and enabler, Minnesota has compiled the fifth-best record in the NBA.

Confidence-Breeding Consistency

For the first time in franchise history, the Wolves have thus far avoided a horrendous stretch of play. Last season, the Wolves twice dropped three games in a row, got walloped by 25 points or more on three occasions, and finally collapsed in early March with a seven-game skid. These embarrassments preyed on the psyche of a franchise that was already fragile. This year's squad hasn't lost three in a row since the first two weeks of the season, hasn't been beaten by 25 points or more, and has reeled off 17 straight victories at home. The result has been a synergy of confidence and rhythmic cohesion on offense and defense.

Harmony

From Terrell Brandon's preseason declaration that he'd be content to pocket his $10 million grooming Chauncey Billups to replace him, to the ESPN The Magazine article in which Wally Szcerbiak's teammates ripped him for being a ball hog, the Wolves didn't exactly exhibit a lot of esprit de corps last year. Add to that the team's previous parade of distractions--Chuck Person, Christian Laettner, J.R. Rider, Tom Gugliotta, Stephon Marbury-and this season's racial pop-off by hapless Loren Woods and Gary Trent's pouting over playing time are relative oases of calm.

Perimeter Defense

The team has rarely defended the three-point shot particularly well, but last year the flailing tandem of Billups and Szczerbiak really let opponents cash in, sinking better than 37 percent from trey territory. This season, point guard Troy Hudson is a decent upgrade over Billups and Brandon, but the real perimeter stoppers have been guards Kendall Gill and Anthony Peeler. Gill, an Extreme fighting buff and overall fitness freak, is the more physical of the two. A consummate pro signed at a bargain price, his defensive tenacity made him arguably the Wolves' second most valuable player during the first six weeks of the season.

During that same period, Peeler was pathetic, a supposed shooting specialist who clanged the rim twice as often as he swished the cords. Even with his above-average passing skills and court vision, he was killing the team. He soon became a lightning rod for fan and media abuse. But Saunders has always had a soft spot for A.P., and told him that if he hunkered down on defense, his wayward jumper wouldn't cost him playing time. A dramatic transformation in Peeler's game occurred during the second half of a late-January tilt against the Clippers, when he keyed the Wolves' comeback victory by shutting down Quentin Richardson, derisively mimicking Richardson's patented fists-to-the-temples showboating as he walked off the court. Suddenly, for the first time in his 10-year career, Peeler has made shutting down his opponent a higher priority than scoring, pumping himself with angry thoughts before every game. He's become the Wolves' second-best on-the-ball defender (behind KG, naturally) since then.

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