A Watery Grave

Confronting what amounted to a must-win situation, the Timberwolves stormed out and played one of their better first quarters of the season in Game Four against the Lakers last night. With Latrell Sprewell, Kevin Garnett, and Trenton Hassell all pushing the pace straight into the paint on offense, the Wolves were aggressive to the brink of recklessness. Yet they remained disciplined enough to avoid turnovers. On almost any other occasion, the effort was worth an eight-to-ten point lead. But this is a healthy, star-studded Lakers team smelling blood in the post-season. When the buzzer sounded to end the quarter, Minnesota clung to a one-point advantage.

The lead wouldn't vanish until past the midway point of the second period, but when it was gone--on a 15-2 Lakers run that turned 35-30 into 37-45--it was gone for good. So was the enormous energy that the 33-year-old Spree was tapping down at the bottom of his personal reservoir. And so were the Wolves' chances of advancing beyond this series.

Can we blame the officials for this? Well, they were maddening and horrible. Garnett, the league's MVP, deserved to draw three fouls that weren't called in the first half alone. Rick Fox climbed on Wally Szczerbiak's back to collect an offensive rebound off a missed free throw in the first quarter, and promptly went outside and hit a three-pointer. Shaquille O'Neal traveled so much on one play that he looked like an Arthur Murray neophyte learning the fox trot--but the whistle the sounded as he sank the shot was for a Wolves foul. Shaq also flattened Fred Hoiberg and Ervin Johnson on separate plays without any reaction from the refs. The Lakers were slapped with four technical fouls, probably because the officiating crew couldn't believe the ungrateful bastards would dare to yap in the face of all this generosity.

But the refs cast their incompetence in the Wolves' favor here and there (albeit not as much) and didn't truly determine who won this game. The bottom line, as most everyone knew even before the series began, is that the Lakers are simply a superior team. Through the first three quarters, they outrebounded the Wolves 45-24, including a break-even 17-17 on the offensive glass. Having shot an abysmal 36.5 percent during that stretch, the Wolves trailed by as little as 15 only because they committed only two turnovers (and yielded no points from them) in the entire first half.

Minnesota didn't have a tandem, let alone one player, remotely capable of containing Shaq. The behemoth corralled all 19 of his rebounds in the first three periods and then coasted as the Wolves made the score more respectable in the final quarter. Michael Olowokandi, the athletic center being paid nearly $5 million by the Wolves specifically for games like this, had zero points and five fouls in nine minutes of "action."

After Shaq had ground down the Wolves underneath the basket in the first half, the other superstar, Kobe Bryant, took over in the third quarter, racking up 18 points on maneuvers that were alternately spectacular and cold-bloodedly routine. If you are a Wolves fan, it is hard to swallow watching a noble competitor like Spree gasping for air while Kobe smirks his way back down the court after yet another bucket. One can only hope that his ego gets the best of his common sense this off-season, compelling him to exercise his free agent rights and sign with another team. Because Kobe without Shaq puts him somewhere in the pantheon above Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady but below KG--a marvelous performer who will always make the NBA all-star game but never the NBA Finals.

Together, however, Kobe and Shaq are inexorably marching toward their fourth league title. It's almost unfair that for this season, the duo also enjoy, at bargain-basement wages, the companionship of Karl Malone. His ability to effectively guard Tim Duncan and KG with minimal help from his teammates is further burnishing his extraordinary legacy. And let's not forget Derek Fisher, the selfless dynamo who has been the best player off the bench in this series and whose instinct for deflating opponents with dramatic, deadeye jumpers is impeccable.

In response, the Wolves' two best players, KG and Spree, left everything they had on the court. Unfortunately, Sprewell left pretty much everything there in the first quarter, registering eight points and three assists in the first 12 minutes and four points and one assist the rest of the way. Their third-best player, Sam Cassell, took his nursing-home gait onto the court for a dramatic three-pointer shortly after checking in for the first time in the third quarter. But he was quickly replaced after he began watching the man he was "guarding" nail shots at the other side of the court.

In Cassell's stead, the Wolves have Darrick Martin, whose inspired play in Game Two will be the crowning achievement in an otherwise undistinguished career. Here is everything one needs to know about Martin as a point guard: In the first two minutes of the third quarter, a double-teamed KG swung him a perfect pass at the top of the key. Martin had time to set his feet, square his shoulders, and convert the trey that brought the Wolves within two points of the lead. The very next time down the court, Martin, closely guarded this time, launched an off-balance brick from behind the three-point arc with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Such delusions of grandeur are why Martin's accuracy from the field is 26 percent for both this series and the playoffs as a whole.

How the Timberwolves fare in tomorrow night's contest is almost entirely up to the Lakers. If Detroit should beat Indiana tonight, it would create some urgency for L.A. to eliminate Minnesota quickly and prepare for the finals. An Indiana win would even that Eastern Conference battle at two games apiece, and afford the Lakers room for nonchalance without penalty. In that case we could see a repeat of the Laker laziness that permeated Game Two, which would enable the Wolves to please their home fans one last time in what has been the most successful and satisfying season in franchise history.

Just don't expect Game Seven.