Indiana beat the Miami Heat last night to wrap up their second-round Eastern Conference series. Power forward Jermaine O'Neal, who finished third in the NBA's MVP voting this year, hit only two of 10 shots and had a lone assist and four fouls to go with his 13 rebounds and three blocks. In the previous game, the Pacers were led to victory by role player Alex Foster, who sank nine of 10 shots and grabbed seven offensive rebounds in erupting for 20 points and 16 boards overall.
I mention this because since the Kings whupped the Wolves in convincing fashion on Sunday to force tonight's deciding seventh game, the dominant chatter from columnists, commentators, and radio call-ins has alternated between two poles. On one hand, we have chuckleheads asking What's wrong with Kevin Garnett?; on the other hand, we have hoops geniuses claiming that for the Wolves to triumph, KG will need to step up and do more for the team. Garnett has readily accepted the bait--he's a glutton for assuming responsibility--going so far as to deploy his now-infamous war armament analogy in explaining what he'll bring to tonight's contest.
But the beauty of basketball is that it's a team game in which the premier ballclubs produce synergy at both ends of the court (and without the offensive/defensive platoons of football). Unlike a hockey goalie or a baseball pitcher, one dominant player is not enough to determine a game. Yes, it's true that a star performer rising to the occasion is a vital component in deciding his or her team's ultimate fate. But hardly the sole component.
For all of Kobe's and Shaq's heroics in the Lakers-Spurs series, L.A. doesn't advance without Phil Jackson abandoning the triangle offense in favor of the pick and roll, and changing his team's defensive alignment on Tony Parker. And even then, if Derek Fisher doesn't hit that .4 second Hail Mary in Game Five, it's quite likely the Spurs are in the conference finals.
This is not to say that concerns about Garnett are without merit. The Wolves superstar is posting his usual stellar numbers in the Sacramento series. He leads all playoff performers in rebounds, ranks third in scoring and blocked shots, and is 14th in assists. But those gaudy stats have produced far less synergy for his team than happened during the regular season, when KG was among the league leaders in positive point differential when he was on the court. Looking at the plus/minus totals for the Sacramento series, there is almost no difference between how the Wolves have fared with KG in the game (-10 over 265 minutes) as when he's been on the bench (-1 over 28 minutes). Either Garnett is doing a poor job of enabling his teammates, or his teammates are doing a poor job of being enabled.
In my view, demanding that KG do more gets it exactly backward, since the problem is that he's already trying to do too much. The abysmal play of Michael Olowokandi and the minimal offensive contributions by Ervin Johnson and Mark Madsen mean that Garnett is Minnesota's only reliable scoring threat in the low post during this series. And the back spasms besieging Sam Cassell plus the lack of poise and court savvy by Darrick Martin makes KG the primary way station for offensive ball movement in the team's half-court sets. Thus, Garnett is assuming the responsibilities normally undertaken by the center and the point guard. Simultaneously. Against an opponent who is now intimately familiar with the Wolves' tendencies and wholly dedicated to ensuring Garnett doesn't beat them.
KG's attitude has been vulnerable to this "do everything" mentality during this series. In past playoff appearances, he has been stung by unfair criticism that he did not sufficiently assert himself and "take over" games, barbs that ignored his unique strengths. His game is based on comprehensive versatility rather than one dominant facet, and on his selfless contributions to his teammates. In response, even before the playoffs started this season he was loudly proclaiming that he would rise up and carry his team.
But if anyone is going to be harmed by extra motivation, it's Garnett. As opposed to demi-stars like Cassell and Sprewell, he never paces himself, keeping his motor running at red-zone levels even during the most inconsequential minutes of games. Add to that his outsized sense of responsibility, the higher stakes of the playoffs, and the inability of Kandi, Cassell, and others to deliver on pre-playoff expectations, and it's easy to see why KG has been spinning his wheels when he pushes down the throttle against Sacramento.
The biggest difference between Garnett's regular-season excellence and his relatively ineffectual play against the Kings is the frequency of his turnovers. With 29 miscues in six games, KG has nearly doubled his turnover rate. In Game One, he was surprised by Sacramento's rapid, swarming traps, and turned the ball over six times. Then he adjusted, to the point where from the fourth quarter of Game Two until the overtime of Game Three (both won by the Wolves), he didn't turn the ball over once. In Game Four, his miscues were the result of his aggressiveness going to the hoop: Four of his five turnovers involved two traveling calls and two offensive fouls.