Underdogs Again

Another injury has the suddenly undersized Timberwolves looking up at their Western Conference rivals

The news that center Michael Olowokandi went under the knife to have scar tissue scraped from behind his right knee last Friday was a grim bit of business for Timberwolves fans to absorb. In the big picture scheme of the way the Western Conference is constituted, the Kandi Man is arguably the team's second most-valuable player. There are an assortment of swing men on the club to comprise a tag-team replacement for Latrell Sprewell should he be injured, and a (hopefully) soon to be healthy Troy Hudson could fill most of the void that would be created if point guard Sam Cassell went down. So aside from the irreplaceable loss of superstar Kevin Garnett, the Wolves are probably most bereft by the absence of Olowokandi, the team's most formidable pivot man. Consider that the Lakers have Shaq and Malone; the Spurs have Duncan and Rasho; Sacramento plays two centers, Divac and Miller, and will soon have Chris Webber back; Houston's Yao Ming is seven-feet, five-inches tall; and Dallas is most vulnerable trying to defend against an opposing big man. The Wolves will have to compile a better record than at least two of those five teams in order to secure home court advantage in the playoffs.

For the next two months or so, Minnesota will make their playoff push with aged Ervin Johnson and undersized Mark Madsen and Oliver Miller rotating in at center, supplemented by occasional periods when the team goes with a small lineup of KG, Spree, and Gary Trent on the front line. Last week's signing of Miller shows how disenchanted the team's braintrust was with the big men they brought during training camp, including the gritty fan favorite Reggie Slater. Miller is a six-foot, nine-inch, 33-year old journeyman who has been playing minor-league (CBA) ball for the past two years and is most renowned for his once-enormous girth. He is currently listed at 315 pounds, which is about 40-85 pounds less than he used to lug around during his previous eight-year, five-team stint in the NBA. Unfortunately, given Johnson's age and Madsen's rust and aching back, Miller may now be the team's most mobile center. And unless time has significantly eroded his skills, he possesses the most well-rounded (pardon the pun) capabilities of the three pivot men. We'll know more after tonight's game against Boston, and much more after Miller spends time staring into Yao's armpits Tuesday night against Houston.

Before the onset of this battle-scarred season, one could look at the Wolves' roster and reasonably assume they would be serious playoff contenders-able to advance into the second round, if not further-for the first time in franchise history. Kandi's surgery forces the team back into its familiar role as gritty underdogs. Despite the unending wave of injuries, the club is just one game out of first place in the Midwest Division-but tied for the sixth seed in the brutal, hotly contested Western Conference, which would currently have them on the road against either the Lakers or Sacramento if the playoffs began today.

 

The good news, and the reason Minnesota has weathered a rough patch in the schedule to stay in contention for a home court playoff seed, is that the talent on the roster has never been deeper. The most recent role player to step up his game was Trenton Hassell in Friday night's win over Washington. Three days earlier, Golden State had administered another dreadful home loss to the Wolves in part by leaving reluctant shooters like Hassell, Johnson, and Keith McLeod unguarded in order to double-team the star troika of KG, Spree, and Cassell. When I asked coach Flip Saunders after the game whether it was important for the Hassells and McLeods to keep opponents honest by taking those uncontested jumpers, his emphatic answer indicated that the message would be delivered in practice the next day. In the locker room, Hassell was already shaking his head over his inability to score. "Most of the time, I've got the weakest defender guarding me. I need to make those shots," he said, noting that he'd only converted two of five attempts. But when I suggested that he should shoot more often as well as more accurately, he demurred, saying that wasn't his role.

Between Tuesday and Friday night, he found out otherwise. Told by Saunders to be more aggressive on offense, he was a totally different player than the defensive specialist Wolves' fans were accustomed to watching, hitting an open jumper and driving the lane for a basket within the first four minutes of the game. By the end of the first quarter, he had six points, five rebounds, and two assists, helping to spark an offense that hit a remarkable 15 of its first 16 shots. When the night was over, Hassell, who hadn't registered double-figure totals in either points or rebounds this season, had rung up 14 points (on 6 of 7 shooting from the field) and grabbed ten boards while playing a season-high 36 minutes. And he remained one of the team's top three (with KG and Spree) tenaciously effective defenders.

Hassell, who is just 24 years old, was signed to a minimum contract after being idiotically cut by the dysfunctional Chicago Bulls. Monday's game in Boston will likely hinge in large measure on how well he and Sprewell defend Celtic superstar Paul Pierce. Gritty underdogs, you gotta love 'em. Because suddenly, once again, if you're a Wolves' fan you have no other choice.

 
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