Looking Fierce

The dynamic duo: Sam Cassell and Ervin Johnson
David Kern

It didn't take a hoops junkie to understand that the Minnesota Timberwolves were entering the 2003-04 season with the most talented roster in franchise history. But as the team's win total continues to mount, as it did the past few weeks despite a slew of stubborn injuries to key personnel, it is becoming apparent that this edition of the Wolves may also be the deepest, most resourceful ballclub we've had since the Lakers left town over 40 years ago.

Having former all-star Wally Szczerbiak and last year's starting point guard Troy Hudson both go down before the season started seemed like a daunting, though not insurmountable, challenge. But at the beginning of December, when starting center Michael Olowokandi was sidelined with pain in his right knee (which eventually required surgery on the 12th of this month) before his other wheel had completely healed from a summer operation, the Wolves looked to be in dire straits. A week earlier, Kandi's undersized backup, Mark Madsen, began showing up for games in street clothes and a girdle, having been waylaid by back spasms. This felling of the team's tall timber occurred just as the club was beginning one of the most brutal stretches in its schedule.

The Wolves responded to this adversity by winning eight of their first nine games in December. All that separates the team from perfection this month is an errant jumper by shooting guard Fred Hoiberg in the final seconds of a close loss against Golden State. Over the past five games, the last three against quality opponents, Minnesota's average margin of victory has been 17 points. Obviously, such dominance requires synergistic teamwork. Many players, as well as coach Flip Saunders and the front-office brain trust of Kevin McHale and Glen Taylor, all deserve credit for the Wolves' inspired, efficient performance. But let's focus first on perhaps the most unlikely catalyst for the team's recent surge: Ervin Johnson.

Johnson is a Timberwolf only because the Milwaukee Bucks desperately wanted to rid themselves of his overpriced salary, which amounts to more than $9 million over the next two years. Taylor's willingness to accept that financial liability enabled the Wolves to acquire Sam Cassell (and EJ) for the less talented tandem of Joe Smith and Anthony Peeler. Through training camp and the first month of this season, Johnson, who turned 36 last Sunday, seemed to be about a decade past his mediocre prime, moving around the court at a pace that made you look for cobwebs between his knees. When injuries to Kandi and Madsen compelled Saunders to start him for the first time, against the Knicks in late November, New York's old and creaky defensive specialist, Dikembe Mutumbo, abused him for 17 points in the first half. For the next two and a half games, Saunders opted to go with the doubly-gimpy Kandi and backup power forward Gary Trent at center rather than subject Johnson and the team to prolonged embarrassment.

But when the calendar flipped to December, Johnson suddenly turned back the clock on his decrepit joints and began performing with a veteran's savvy. The timing couldn't have been better. It began when he blocked four shots against Phoenix, Kandi's last game before surgery, with Madsen still out of uniform. And it has continued during the time when Cassell has grown familiar enough with Saunders's offense to operate with peak efficiency.

Johnson and Cassell played together for five years in Milwaukee and have an intimate, appreciative understanding of each other's strengths and tendencies. Cassell is a deadly accurate mid-range shooter--Saunders claims he's the best at it of any player he's ever coached. But Saunders also preaches ball movement and getting other shooters involved in the scoring. Johnson, however, has never been a shooter, and the touches he doesn't need mean Cassell has more opportunity to look for his own shot on occasion. Johnson is also extremely adept at knowing how and when to set picks that free Cassell up for open jump shots out by the foul line. Cassell was beginning to raise his field goal percentage a few games before Johnson was inserted into the lineup, but it's still no coincidence that Sammy has been sizzling as a scorer since Johnson has been given more minutes.

"They work together really well," says Wolves assistant coach Jerry Sichting. "Against Boston, Ervin's man would run down the court and wait for him under the basket. But Ervin would come down and stop by the free throw line and set a pick for Sam. We ran that over and over." Cassell nailed 12 of 17 shots in the 116-95 victory.

Johnson has been even more valuable to Cassell and the Wolves on defense. Through much of November, the team's most chronic flaw was allowing dribble penetration by the guards, particularly off the pick-and-roll play. Too often, Cassell would allow his man to get to the basket, and a hobbled Olowokandi would allow the layup or belatedly commit the foul. In recent weeks, the Wolves have adjusted their pick-and-roll defense to stave off penetration, allowing opponents open shots from outside if necessary. As a result, Minnesota ranks in the bottom third of the league in defending the three-pointer, but is third-best in reducing other teams' overall field goal accuracy. Another reason for the Wolves' improved defense is that Johnson excels at "showing"--stepping out and sealing off penetration--on the pick-and-roll, which takes the pressure off Cassell. "Yeah, Ervin's my man on defense; he's always got my back," Cassell enthuses.

Johnson's improved play and familiarity with Cassell is just one--and not even the most important--of many reasons why the Wolves have overcome injuries to become one of the league's elite teams thus far this season. Separate columns could be written about half a dozen guys on the team. Kevin Garnett is playing better than last year when--Tim Duncan be damned--he was the real MVP of the NBA. Concerns about a clash between the strong wills of Saunders and Cassell have thus far been groundless. The Wolves' offense is operating the way Saunders likes it--they beat teams with twos, not threes (as in long-range treys) or ones (free throws)--via a blizzard of accurate jumpers that produce high assist counts and few turnovers. Cassell has also put his personality on the team, shooting with fearless proclivity (and accuracy) in the fourth quarter and demanding certain offensive sets at times. "Same play! Same play!" he yelled at Saunders while dribbling up the court last Saturday night against Indiana. The previous play had been his jump shot from the foul line. This time, he paused at the line, then dribbled to the corner and delivered a beautiful bounce pass to a driving Latrell Sprewell for the layup, flashing his trademark grin while heading back down the court.

There's Spree, who has accepted his relegation to being the third option on offense without complaint, a classy display of teamwork over ego for a guy who is used to being an offensive focal point. There's Trenton Hassell, who on a team with KG and Spree is still tenaciously effective enough on defense to be assigned the opponent's top scorer at either the small forward or shooting guard position. This has freed Garnett up to patrol the paint down by the basket, where he is among the league leaders in rebounds and blocked shots. There's Fred Hoiberg's ball movement and three-point threat, Gary Trent's yeoman service as an undersized center, and there's even the once grossly overweight Oliver Miller, back from two years in minor-league basketball purgatory, giving the team some solid minutes.

In fact, the effectiveness of Trent and Miller and the return of Madsen may mean reduced minutes for Johnson, especially against smaller, quicker, opposing front lines. If so, let's remember that at the pivotal moment when the Wolves needed him most, EJ stepped up and helped goose this team into a sterling stretch of basketball. Such crucial, if relatively minor, contributions can spell the difference between a good team and one with a legitimate chance to advance in the playoffs.

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