A Hard Road

Banged-up team meets brutal schedule

Less than two weeks ago, the Timberwolves seemed headed for the sort of nasty freefall that could have tensed up the locker room and turned the prospect of securing home-court advantage in the playoffs into an uphill trek. After a deflating home loss to Seattle at the buzzer, the team needed a missed free throw by Chicago's Jalen Rose and a desperation three-pointer by Latrell Sprewell to eventually beat the Bulls in overtime. Then they came back to the Target Center and got outhustled and undressed for the second time this season by lowly Utah, evening their record at 5-5.

But a break in the schedule provided the Wolves with some extended practice time. And, as has happened on so many occasions during Flip Saunders's tenure as coach, the team emerged from it as a more self-assured ballclub, registering easy victories in their next three games. The modest winning streak provides this still injury-depleted team with a little momentum as it moves into a rough three-week stretch that includes only two home games and an abundance of quality opponents.

Saunders has argued that the opening weeks of the season were rigorous due to the nonstop travel and the bunched schedule. But only two of the Wolves' first 13 foes can reasonably be considered among the league's top dozen teams (Sacramento and New Jersey), and Minnesota lost to both of them. By contrast, at least seven of the team's next 13 opponents are among that dazzling dozen. It's likely that the Wolves will have to run this gauntlet (which ends just before the winter solstice) without any meaningful contribution from the still-disabled Troy Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak, or dependable minutes from gimpy Michael Olowokandi. To make a significant run at home-court advantage in the playoffs, the team needs to stay above .500 until the roster is finally at full strength and ready to gel, which should occur around New Year's. Put simply, the next five weeks are crucial to the Wolves' postseason prospects.

Because Minnesota has played patsies most of the time, it's difficult to know how much they've progressed since the start of the season. Early on, it was obvious that Sam Cassell and Olowokandi were primarily responsible for the team's doldrums. A procession of obscure point guards--Raul Lopez, Flip Murray, Carlos Arroyo--had fun feasting on Cassell's shoddy defense, penetrating to the hoop at will and confidently directing the offense without any disruption to their rhythm. But when Denver came to town with the potent tandem of Andre Miller and Earl Boykins at the point, Cassell suddenly snapped to attention and started moving his feet as steadily as his mouth. Result: Miller and Boykins made just four of 20 shots. Before the Denver game, the opponent who played the most minutes at the point in the Wolves' first 10 games was averaging more than 19 points. Since then, that average has been nearly halved, to 10, even with the numbers by Cleveland's wunderkind point guard Lebron James factored in the mix. The ever-proud Cassell claims the improvement stems from a change in defense to double-team the pick-and-roll play, but that doesn't explain why he isn't getting beat on straight dribble-penetration the way Murray and Arroyo roasted him earlier this month. He's simply trying harder, or isn't as bothered by nagging injuries to his big toe, groin, and calf.

Olowokandi's admission that both of his knees were giving him trouble was actually a relief to hear, given his torpid movement and the frequency with which he was picking up dumb fouls and turning the ball over. Saunders, who had claimed after the third game that Kandi would be the best center ever to play for the Wolves, had begun tempering his comments, acknowledging that Olowokandi "has always turned the ball over a lot--we used to trap him all the time when we played against him." With Kandi out, that million bucks the Wolves paid Mark Madsen looks like a savvy investment in sweat equity, as the undersized banger has held his own with feisty interior D, bone-crunching picks, and the occasional put-back on the offensive glass. It's a style most effective for about 25 to 30 minutes per game, however, and Saunders is understandably reluctant to use the creaky Ervin Johnson as a backup in the pivot.

The better solution has been to go to a smaller, quicker lineup with Kevin Garnett at center. In previous seasons, one of the few exceptions to KG's selflessness has been his reluctance to defend big men--one reason he insists on being listed as 6' 11" rather than his correct height of 7' 1" is so that people won't be tempted to think of him as a pivot man. But in the past two games, he's played significant minutes guarding Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the Clippers' Chris Kamen, both classic low-post centers. And with tenacious perimeter defenders like Sprewell, Trenton Hassell, and Fred Hoiberg on the team, KG has been able to concentrate on helping Madsen patrol the paint, which is why he ranks seventh in the NBA in blocked shots and second in rebounding.

But the Wolves' biggest improvement in the past two weeks has been better movement of players and the ball on offense. After more than a decade of running half-court offensive sets where he controlled the ball for 10 to 15 seconds in order to manufacture one good open shot, Cassell is belatedly adjusting to Saunders's preference for wearing down opponents' stamina and getting all the Wolves involved through a series of rapid passes. Lately, the Wolves have been starting a pair of reluctant shooters (but staunch defenders) in Madsen and Hassell, but eventually subbing in Hoiberg and Gary Trent to go with their big three (KG, Cassell, and Spree), giving the Wolves formidable scorers at every position on the court. Against the Clippers, playing the second night of a back-to-back, the Wolves rang up 17 assists in the second half while turning the ball over just twice, a ratio that spells almost certain victory. But just as importantly, when Hassell got into early foul trouble, the Wolves replaced him with Hoiberg and went into their increasingly effective matchup zone defense, which keyed a 17-3 first-quarter run from which the Clips never recovered.

There aren't many teams as inept as the Clippers on the schedule during the next few weeks. But it also isn't likely that, even without three of their top six players, Minnesota will be overmatched very often during this brutal stretch of games. For that, a tip of the cap goes to Kevin McHale and the team's front office, which buttressed the major acquisitions of Cassell and Sprewell with a handful of capable role players. Consider all that McHale obtained for a relative pittance: Madsen's tenacity; Hoiberg's long-range shooting (he's second in the league in three-point accuracy) and steady defense; Trent's stunning all-around improvement; Hassell's selfless, energetic D; and backup point guard Keith McLeod's skill in pushing the pace on offense. If and when Hudson, Wally, and Kandi are able to operate at full throttle, this team is at least 10 players deep--and you'd have to think that Szczerbiak is behind Hoiberg on the depth chart.

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