Everybody Is a Star

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.

The biggest concern facing the Wolves heading into tonight's contest is the pattern that has been established over the past two games. It was as the onset of Game Five that Cassell's back spasms became readily apparent, forcing more of the scoring and ball-handling role onto Garnett. Since then, 10 of KG's 13 turnovers have been "bad passes" or "lost balls." By contrast, in Games One through Four, just six of Garnett's 16 turnovers were ball-handling errors. What's more, in Games One through Four, only five of KG's 16 turnovers occurred in the first half. In the past two games, 11 of his 13 miscues have been committed before halftime.

Garnett freely admits that he is often too "amped up" at the beginning of games. It takes a while for him to settle down and not needlessly force the flow of play. Combine that hyper-intensity with the added ball-handling responsibilities that fall to him when Cassell is ailing, and you can see what's turned KG into a turnover machine early in the past two games. In Game Five, Spree's stupendous performance overcame this liability, but even another sterling job by Sprewell couldn't rescue Game Six.

Garnett's ability to play intelligently and within himself from the start is a key to tonight's game. But that is much more easily done if Cassell can reassume his role as the offensive ignition. The Wolves have proven they can shut down Sacramento's half-court offense--it's the Kings' transition points off turnovers that kill Minnesota. Over the past four games, Cassell has averaged just 10.8 points while converting merely 36 percent of his shots. If Sammy is healthy, his scoring prowess from the perimeter spreads the Kings' defense and gives KG more room to maneuver in the paint. More significantly, it reduces Garnett's ball handling (and the turnovers).

There is perhaps one extraordinary demand that might be made of Garnett tonight, one at odds with his typical style of play: Go hard, and immediately, to the basket when he gets the ball. In the third quarter of Sunday's Game Six, the Wolves had drawn five fouls against the Kings in the first three minutes, putting them in a position to shoot free throws with each succeeding Sacramento foul over the ensuing 8:55 left in the period. They proceeded to blow that golden opportunity, provoking only three free throws (one as a result of Anthony Peeler's technical foul for bashing KG in the face) the rest of the quarter.

With the now-suspended Peeler missing in action, the Kings are down to six players that have the full confidence of coach Rick Adelman. None of the Kings' big men are capable of consistently stopping Garnett one-on-one near the basket. If he wheels and goes up strong before the double teams arrive, he will occasionally be called for charging and get his shot blocked. More often, he will score and/or absorb the foul that will exploit the Kings' lack of depth.

If Garnett is aggressive in the paint and Cassell is healthy, the Wolves will win this game, guaranteed. Otherwise, the outcome is very much in doubt. Trenton Hassell will have to regain the edge he enjoyed over Peja Stojakovic earlier in the series. Fred Hoiberg and Spree will have to bear more of the ball-handling burden out on the perimeter. The Wolves may be forced to take the huge gamble of having Wally Szczerbiak invite turnovers while he drives in the paint. Spree must do a better job of keeping Mike Bibby in front of him on the pick and roll. And EJ and Mad Dog must prevent Sacramento putbacks and contribute just enough offense to distract the Kings' D a bit away from KG.

Put simply, it's a team game. Wolves fans--and more importantly, Kevin Garnett--need to remember that when the ref blows his whistle to begin play this evening.

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