How The West Was Won

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

I think part of what happened this year, too, is we were forced by injuries to play Sam and Spree and probably Kevin a little more than we wanted. If you average 37 or 38 minutes a game, and you can take that down to 33 or 34, that four or five minutes may not seem like much. But if you multiply that by 80 games, that's like playing 10 less games. It makes a big difference.

So I think there is a natural tendency to [pace yourself], no question. But the encouraging thing is, when we've played good teams, for the most part those guys have really risen up and played well. The discouraging thing is that sometimes--like Boston at home, or at Philly without Iverson and the Dog [Glen Robinson]--the sense of urgency hasn't been there.

CP: Did you anticipate that your identity this season would be as a defensive team? You didn't get Trenton Hassell until the last day, and that was a big key, and Freddie Hoiberg has obviously been bigger off the bench than I imagine you anticipated.

David Kern

Saunders:We thought we'd be better because we have more size to, as Kevin says, protect the paint. Last year, we were 10th or 11th in field goal percentage defense. We gave more points, but we scored more points. We were a little bit more [effective] as far as transition on offense. But we didn't have the ability a year ago to totally stop teams. I don't think anyone thought that would be our stamp. Because we've got a lot of good offensive players. We're still second in the league in field goal percentage and have high assists and low turnovers.

McHale: I think you're always trying to play defensively. It is very hard for me to teach a guy to have a Larry Bird mentality, to dribble right with four seconds left on the clock, run it between his legs, step back and shoot a three and make it.

But you can teach defense. You can teach anybody to move to the right spots. So we are better defensively because that has been a bigger priority for Flip and the coaches. And the guys have got to buy into it; there has got to be pride that we can win a game shooting 30 percent. I'll tell you a team that has that: San Antonio. They won the conference finals and the NBA finals last year shooting under 40 percent. That doesn't bother them. Missing shots doesn't deter from their defense. Sometimes we have offensive players missing shots and it affects them on the other end, and that's something you have to fight through. But the ability to go big and change [opponents'] shots, I'm a big believer in that. That's the way the teams I played on had success.

CP: Is that why four big men were more of a priority for you than three point guards?

Saunders:We were in a situation--I mean, the four big men unfortunately are all pretty one-dimensional position players. We didn't know what the situation was with Olowokandi when we kept Oliver [Miller]. You better have some big guys playing in the West. But I don't think anyone anticipated that Troy was going to have the year that he's had, from an injury standpoint.

McHale: That's been the biggest X factor. All along, we've just been banking on Troy [Hudson] being able to come back and get healthy. And that's been a really frustrating thing for Troy, and for everybody. You have to adapt. Is it ideal? No, but that's what you've got.

CP: It's easy to focus on Spree's inconsistency on offense--how he'll get 30 one night and nine the next. But Flip, you once told me that in order for this team to be successful, Spree has got to be on the floor, and he's second only to Kevin in minutes played. Explain why he's so valuable and yet so up-and-down offensively.

McHale: The problem is, sometimes we don't run the ball much. Spree's up ahead on the wing, and we don't get the ball to him when he's in a position to attack. And there are times when we come down and the ball movement isn't there and the body movement stops right after that. And then he gets isolated to where all he's doing is shooting 25 to 30 footers. And he can make those shots. He's a good shooter. But he's more of a slasher than a flat-out shooter. There are certain players in our league who are shooters, one-trick ponies who just catch and shoot. That's not Spree. He can do a lot of other stuff.

What I like is, there's a mental toughness about the kid. You don't see a lot of change of expression on him, not a lot of frustration or exuberance; he just goes out and plays. And you need those guys. Because some of our guys ride the emotional roller coaster a little bit. Three shots go in and they've got more energy than you can shake a stick at, and three shots don't go in and they lose that energy. Spree is just real professional.

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