Best Supporting Actors

There probably should have been a few days of dedicated, silent preparation taking place in the Wolves-Nuggets series early this week, but instead silly bravado held sway. The interminable wait between playoff games and the surprising ease with which upstart Denver whupped the top-seeded Wolves last Saturday night got tongues flapping among members of both teams. On Tuesday afternoon, media outlets were breathlessly reporting Kevin Garnett's comment that he felt sorry for whomever was chosen to guard him during that night's Game Four. In the other locker room, Carmelo Anthony was opining that a Denver victory would so decimate the Wolves that the entire franchise would go out of business.

All this verbal static (KG and Melo were hardly alone in working their mouths) morphed into antic behavior once the game was finally played. A loose ball scrum in the first quarter led to some pushing and jousting. Later, Sam Cassell gave a pseudo-playful shove to Nuggets' coach Jeff Bzdelic before inbounding a ball on the sidelines. And after the Wolves eked out an 84-82 victory to go up 3-1, they were pelted with food and liquid from Denver's fans as they left the court. No doubt the crowd was piqued by the post-game smack-talking between Latrell Sprewell and Jon Barry, who woofed at each other jaw-to-jaw with a pitifully comic fervor reminiscent of weigh-ins at a heavyweight championship bout.

Except that Tuesday night's tilt was, in the grand scheme of determining an NBA champion, strictly a flyweight bout. The Nuggets are a lowly eighth seed who, after getting methodically trounced in the first two games of the series, had merely held serve, once, at home. And the Wolves, who have never advanced past the first round, let their frayed nerves show by expending a lot of emotional lather on an opponent they should be handily dismissing. The unfortunate impression to be gleaned from all these shenanigans was that sometimes it's the littlest dogs who bark the most frantically.

But there were at least two Timberwolves who let their performance do all the talking, and their eloquence is the main reason why the Nuggets are now on the brink of elimination. In retrospect, their stealthy, steady, crucial contributions shouldn't have been so much of a surprise. All year long, Trenton Hassell and Fred Hoiberg--both cut loose for no compensation by the clueless Chicago Bulls, who finished this season with the NBA's second-worst record--have shut up and delivered pretty much everything that has been asked of them, transforming themselves into role players par excellence on this ballclub.

I don't know if Hassell was even aware of Anthony's braggadocio after Game Three, when he said of the Wolves: "The more you play 'em, the more comfortable you get with their defense. You start figuring out what to do, when to do it and how to do it." But throughout Game Four, with his own lips sealed, Hassell fed Melo back that plate of bullshit one humiliating morsel at a time. Over and over, the focal point of the Nuggets' half-court offense received the ball, tested Hassell with jukes, shimmies, jumpers, and drives to the hoop, and came up with nothing more than a vivid closeup of Hassell's hand in his face. Anthony's lone basket in 16 field goal attempts came on a steal and uncontested lay-up in transition. Otherwise, nada. No trips to the foul line. One assist. So complete was Hassell's domination (which included a game-high five steals) that the Nuggets belatedly realized that they were far more adept with their star rookie languishing on the bench.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the court, Denver's defense swarmed around Garnett, Cassell, and occasionally Spree, determined to make one of Minnesota's role players beat them. Which is essentially what Hassell did, nailing six of seven shots in the second half, and 7 of 10 overall. This offensive coming-out party has been a long time coming. For months, Hassell has deferred his own open shots for the sake of moving the ball to the Big Three, and later Szczerbiak, selflessly ceding touches to keep everyone feeling loved and in rhythm. But with Szczerbiak out with cracked vertebrae and Cassell being shackled and worn down on the perimeter, Saunders told Hassell to be more aggressive on offense. And Hassell--who had a higher shooting percentage, more assists, and fewer turnovers than Szczerbiak this season--does what he's told. While every other Timberwolf has missed more than half of their shots during this series, Hassell is shooting a gaudy 60 percent from the field.

Hoiberg's rescue effort wasn't quite as dramatic, but vital nevertheless. With five minutes left to play in the first half Tuesday, the Wolves' prospects were looking fairly grim. The thin air and Denver's jitterbug backcourt of Andre Miller and Earl Boykins had once again conspired to frustrate Cassell, who picked up his third foul after yielding four turnovers that contributed to the Nuggets' seven-point lead. Because Darrick Martin had failed to provide a spark in an earlier three-minute stint subbing for Sammy, coach Flip Saunders decided to go with Hoiberg at the point.

Good idea. Hoiberg promptly used his size and strength advantage over Boykins to snare an offensive rebound on one possession, and burst straight down the middle for an easy layup on a feed from KG on another. Denver countered by subbing Voshon Lenard for Boykins, but the three-guard lineup of Hoiberg, Hassell, and Spree were shutting down penetration from the perimeter, so Bzdelik lifted Miller and went back to Boykins. With KG and Hoiberg (two of the NBA's smartest players) setting the tone, the Wolves began effectively moving the ball for the first time in the game. Hoiberg's pass off the high pick-and-roll yielded an open jumper converted by KG, and Hoiberg assisted on another Garnett bucket less than a minute later. Hoiberg blew a perfect alley-oop from KG 20 seconds later, but it was clear Denver's D was being dissected. Hoiberg's jumper, assisted by Spree, closed out a 10-3 run that tied the game at the half.

Not surprisingly, Hoiberg's other sterling stretch occurred in the fourth quarter. (No other Timberwolf, not even Cassell, contributes a greater percentage of his points in the final period.) A pair of treys by Lenard had wiped out two-thirds of the Wolves' nine-point lead in the final 58 seconds of the third quarter, sending Denver's fans into a frenzy. But in the tension-packed first two minutes of the fourth quarter, Hoiberg swished a jumper from the top of the key, then a long-range three that boosted the lead back to eight, and then dove on the floor to steal the ball from Anthony. His line for the night was nine points, two assists, two steals, and zero turnovers in 29 minutes.

There are rumors that Denver coach Jeff Bzdelic will be fired after this season and replaced by former Cavs/Sonics/Bucks skipper George Karl. If true, this will be a foray into idiocy to rival the Hornets canning Paul Silas last season in favor of Tim Floyd. After being humbled by Minnesota in Game One, Bzdelic declared that the Nuggets needed to deny Cassell room to maneuver out on the perimeter and do a better job of rebounding. His game plans over the past ten days turned those deficiencies into strengths and have set the Wolves back on their heels against a team of inferior skill and experience.

For the two games in Denver, Cassell managed seven points below his regular season average on 38 percent shooting, registered just ten assists against seven turnovers, and often looked fatigued and unable to jump-start Saunders' crisp, half-court passing attack. On the boards, the Nuggets grabbed 20 offensive rebounds in each game, allowing them to generate an incredible 44-shot advantage in field goal attempts. Denver's quick big men have often exposed Minnesota's lack of speed (Ervin Johnson) or smarts (Michael Olowokandi) in the pivot, with Kandi adding to his reputation for inconsistency by racking up two points, four rebounds, and eight fouls over 22 chaotic minutes during the past two games.

The Wolves' saving grace, of course, has been team defense. Denver's 26-shot advantage in Game Four produced just three more field goals than Minnesota, proving yet again that you advance in the playoffs by shutting down your opponent. Or, as KG succinctly put it after the game, "We are playing like crap, but we still beat 'em."

Fortunately, every series has its own dynamic, and the Wolves' probable foe in the second round, Sacramento, doesn't have the foot speed or the hops to dominate the boards like Denver. But first, there is the first round series clincher yet to be attained. When it happens, most likely Friday night, the Wolves can finally toss that tenacious monkey off their backs, and hopefully save the chest-thumping and trash talking for more significant milestones ahead.

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