Against All Odds
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Wolves' thrilling overtime win against the three-time defending champion Lakers last night. In the most crucial game (thus far) in franchise history, Flip Saunders' squad delivered their most inspired performance ever. In the long run, regardless of what happens in the remainder of the series, the Wolves have earned a measure of respect and admiration around the NBA that previously didn't exist. In the short run, as anyone who watched this team gut and claw its way to victory now knows, Minnesota has a legitimate shot at pulling the biggest upset of this year's playoffs.
This was a game to silence the skeptics. How many hills of doubt has this team had to surmount? No significant personnel moves in the off-season made a seventh-straight playoff appearance uncertain-at best, they'd once again be first-round fodder for a superior Western Conference team. Then a ceaseless string of injuries-Terrell Brandon, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith, Rasho Nesterovic, Rod Strickland-depleted their roster for nearly every one of the 82 regular season games. Then a season-ending loss by Portland, to the hapless Clippers, forced the Wolves to match up with the Lakers, the consensual favorites to win their fourth straight title. A Lakers' blowout in the opening game of the series seemed to confirm conventional wisdom. Even the Wolves' get-even rout in Game Two last Tuesday felt like a mere delay of the inevitable.
Yet this morning, the Wolves are in the driver's seat, owing to a stupendous performance against all odds that provides the team with a faith and unity that will be almost impossible for any opponent to erase. Since there simply isn't enough space to detail every highlight and clutch play, let's just examine all the obstacles the Wolves had to overcome last night.
Fatigue: Before the series, I said that because Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal are virtually unstoppable scorers, the Wolves' chances of winning rested more with a high-octane offense that could outscore L.A. than with a staunch defense that could slow the Lakers down. Not in Game Three. Even more than in Tuesday night's victory, Saunders' deployment of a full-court press disrupted the Lakers' offense, forcing Shaq to move out of his comfort zone in the low post to assist his teammates bringing up the ball, and taking seconds off the clock that are normally utilized by L.A.'s deliberate half-court passing scheme to get an open shot. Once the Lakers were able to cross the half-court line, the Wolves deployed an array of traps on Shaq and Kobe that flustered both members of the devastating duo (KG's gazelle-like quickness and ability to defend large and small opponents was a key component).
Applying full-court pressure in a hostile arena against a pair of superstars is an incredibly taxing endeavor, however. Having built an 11-point lead with ten seconds to go in the third quarter, the Wolves were clearly spent. Seizing the moment, the Lakers made their inevitable run over the next four minutes, taking their first lead with exactly eight minutes left in the game. It felt like time to salute Minnesota for their gallant fight, praise the indomitable champion, and hope the Wolves hadn't blown their wad so much that they'd offer no resistance in Game Four. Instead, the Wolves improbably rallied. Garnett, who hadn't scored in 14 minutes, fed Hudson and Wally for baskets and then rattled home three shots of his own. The defense regrouped, full-court pressure and all, forcing the Lakers to scramble and play catch-up down the stretch.
Biased Officiating: In all but the most egregious cases, whining about the officiating is a lazy, convenient excuse of last resort, best left to the loyally blind fans of the losing team. The steady succession of horrible calls--nearly all of them against the Wolves--during the most crucial stages of a tight playoff game demand to be mentioned, however. TNT analyst Charles Barkley put it best after the game, when he noted that, while commentators are supposed to be objective, he found himself rooting for the Wolves to win because "this was the worst officiated game I've ever seen."
The two most renowned axioms of officiating in the NBA are that superstars can get away with infractions not allowed to lesser mortals; and that more rugged physical contact is permissible in the playoffs. During a three-minute stretch midway through the fourth quarter, though, Garnett was whistled for three highly questionable fouls, two of them involving incidental contact and one where he didn't even touch the shooter. Then, with 17 seconds left in the game and the Wolves up by five, Kobe Bryant made a ball fake before going up in the air for a three-point shot. Through great effort, a fooled Szczerbiak managed to contort his body away from the play, so that he barely brushed Kobe. No matter: the ref blew his whistle and Kobe's subsequent free throw, capping a four-point play, proved to be the difference between a Wolves win in regulation and an overtime period.
Just 12 seconds into overtime, KG was defending a pick-and-roll play, with Robert Horry setting the screen. With his hand on Horry's hip, Garnett gave a slight shove to get around him (something that had been literally dozens of times during the course of the game without meriting a foul). But Horry used the occasion to throw his 6' 10" frame to the floor, an obvious flop that the refs bought. Just like that, the league's most valuable player was ushered out of nascent overtime with his sixth foul.
The final indignity may have been the most ridiculous. With the Wolves up by one with less than a minute left in overtime, role player Jannero Pargo drove to the hoop against Szczerbiak, running right towards Wally in an effort to draw the foul as much as convert the lay-up. Szczerbiak recognized the gambit and ran away from him. Replays showed a good six inches between Wally and Pargo. But the ref again blew the whistle and awarded Pargo a lead-changing pair of free throws.
The Loss of KG: No team in the NBA relies upon a single player more than the Wolves count on Garnett. This is statistically true, in terms of plus/minus points ratio when KG is on and off the floor. Psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, schematically--you name it--KG is the dominant force on this team. When he fouled out with four minutes and 48 seconds left to play in a tied overtime game on the road, there was every reason to think the Wolves were doomed. Instead, the role players stepped-up and won the game.
The two biggest heroes were Anthony Peeler and Marc Jackson. Peeler, who played tenacious defense on Kobe for the second straight game, supplemented that by hitting jumpers, snaring rebounds and making key passes. Jackson, the undersized backup center who had bitched earlier this month about his lack of playing time, again battled Shaq (who outweighs him by some 100 pounds) for rebounds and positioning in the paint, and calmly sank four-of-five free throws to maintain the Wolves' wafer-thin overtime advantage. Hell, even Gary Trent, the team's worst shooter from the free-throw line, canned a pair with 24 seconds left and the Wolves down by one. Only Szczerbiak seemed to succumb to the pressure, committing a couple of hot-headed fouls (legitimate ones, for a change) and trying to create too much on offense. No matter. Final score: Wolves 114, Lakers 110.
Like the baseball Yankees dynasty of a couple of years ago, the Lakers are impossible to discount in any playoff series--they're the champions until an opponent essentially drives the stake all the way through their heart. The Wolves have now hammered in two blows, which means they're merely halfway through. But consider the dividends of last night's triumph. After such an embarrassingly one-sided display of officiating, NBA Commissioner David Stern will (or damn well should) ensure that the questionable calls won't be going the Lakers way during the next game or two. And after watching his mates vanquish the Lakers while riding the pine, Garnett's kinship and dedication toward his team will be that much stronger. The Wolves have taken the franchise to another level. At the very least, this has become an enormously dramatic, entertaining, competitive series--featuring the grit and momentum of chronic overachievers versus the pride and tradition of defending champions. And right now I find it hard to bet against either team.
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