How The West Was Won

On the brink of the playoffs, the Wolves' brain trust breaks down the best season in franchise history


Flip Saunders

Kevin McHale

David Kern

City Pages: How would you evaluate the season? You've been up and down, but with four games left, you still have a chance to have the best record in the NBA.

Flip Saunders: I think the positive thing is the guys have continued to gel. At the beginning of the year we said our main emphasis was we wanted to get better defensively. I think we've done that. We're second in the NBA in field goal percentage defense. But to judge our team--it's not what's happening in the 82 games of the regular season; it is what happens in the middle of April when we start the playoffs. That's the reason changes were made in the team, for playoff success.

Kevin McHale: It has been a disjointed year from my perspective. A lot of guys were injured, so your chance to really work with them wasn't there. And they need to play together. The amazing thing is people actually think that they can come back and be in rhythm and playing in two weeks, after taking off 60 games. If that was the case, then the NBA season would be 20 games long and no one would practice and you would still see quality basketball. But that's not the way it works. That's why you have training camp and that's why you continue to work all season.

I'd say that when we protect the paint defensively and move the ball and move our bodies, we are a very good team. When we don't, we're not a very good team. But I can tell you that it is probably the same for 95 percent of the teams out there. There may be a few teams that play a lot of one-on-one that don't need to move the ball on offense and don't protect the paint on defense; they just say, "Screw it, we're going to try and outscore you 125 to 121."

That's not going to get the job done in the playoffs. The same basic principles that work in 7th and 8th grade work in the pros: You protect the paint and make other teams shoot through your hands. You move your feet, move your body, and move the ball--with a purpose. And when we do that, we're a very good team. We've proven we can beat anybody. And when we don't do that, we can lose to anybody. It has been a strange year.

CP: Although you guys overall have been much better defensively, it seems like your dribble penetration defense has been the most inconsistent.

Saunders: That's a league-wide situation, because that's the most difficult thing to defend. We've been better on that of late, and part of that is because of the personnel we have.

McHale: Any good player looks through the defense. When I played, I never worried about the guy guarding me. I had a purpose of going somewhere, and I wanted to know who I had to get through to get where I wanted to go.

And that's what I'm talking about when I say protect the paint. When we do that, we do a better job. And there are guys on our team who naturally do a good job with that. And there are guys who get tired or discombobulated, or some other thing, and they drift into old habits, which is to stand around on the weak side and move out to their guy. It's weird, but the best thing you can do on the weak side is get away from your guy and help out.

Saunders: Those things get magnified because the teams that are good, they have a great guy who can penetrate and great three-point shooters. What Kevin is talking about is, you have [defenders] who are very leery of their guy shooting a three, so instead of being in tight [toward the man with the ball on the strong side], they are guarding their guy up close. But when [the ball-handler] penetrates, they still have to come over and help, and then you are in total chaos.

McHale: Everybody's running around trying to recover.

CP: Is that why Ervin Johnson is so effective on defense for you?

Saunders: He's smart. He knows how to play angles in the paint. He talks a lot and helps guys out. He doesn't get beat. Or if he gets beat, it is not mentally, it is physically--the guy is just quicker than he is.

CP: Kevin, you went through a lot of playoffs in your career. Do players necessarily pace themselves, either mentally or physically, to get ready? I see guys like Spree or Sam, veteran guys, and it's not like they aren't trying hard, but there is a feeling you get that they're pacing themselves. Is that natural?

McHale: Yes, it is. There's a certain point in the season where it gets very long. And then there is a point where, I don't know if it happens subconsciously or consciously, but you know the whole season is coming down to the last 10 games and the playoffs and you realize you might have been conserving a little bit.

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