On to LA
Riding their MVP and a revamped starting lineup, the Wolves got what they needed Tuesday night against the Lakers. Virtually no one gives Minnesota a shot in this first-round series against the three-time defending world champions, and with anything less than Tuesday's resounding 28-point victory, the Wolves might well have joined the chorus and meekly succumbed to a four-game sweep. While the blowout probably didn't change the opinion of too many prognosticators, for the Wolves' players it was a statement game to themselves, allowing them to conjure up confidence that isn't totally ridiculed by reality.
Kevin Garnett turned in an almost-typically brilliant performance that simultaneously demonstrated why he is the league's MVP and why he will always be underrated. Kobe Bryant dominated Game One of the series with a breathtaking display of acrobatic shots and beguiling athleticism. KG's Game Two was at once less memorable and more valuable than Kobe's opener. He owned the boards-grabbing 19 defensive rebounds while the entire Lakers team got 22-and rang up 35 points while taking only 21 shots, steadfastly making his teammates better by staying within the Wolves' offensive scheme, dishing out seven assists and executing superb on-ball and help-out defense. Anyone who understands hoops and watches KG night after night knows it's a joke that Ben Wallace was named the NBA's defensive player of the year today, and that Tim Duncan will probably get the MVP award.
But Garnett wasn't the most efficient offensive performer on the court Tuesday. Point guard Troy Hudson reared up and scored 37 points on just 16 shots, propelled by four three-pointers (in six attempts) and 16 trips to the free throw line. He beat Derek Fisher off the dribble so frequently that Lakers' coach Phil Jackson resorted to bit role player Jannero Pargo, who committed five fouls in 17 minutes, not a good strategy against Hudson, who finished fourth in the NBA in free-throw percentage and converted 15 of 16 attempts on Tuesday.
Hudson's inclination to shoot early and often from the outside has never been an easy fit in coach Flip Saunders' system, which emphasizes ball movement and mid-range jumpers. If Rod Strickland had been healthy all season, Hudson would have been a sixth or seventh man, coming off the bench to provide an offensive spark. Strickland remains the more reliable floor general, but as pronounced underdogs in this series, the Wolves need to turn Hudson loose and gamble on the high-upside rewards he can provide. In any case, there's not much advantage in trying to make him more disciplined. "Whenever I'm aggressive, looking for my own shot, then I find other people," he said after Tuesday's game, referring to the ten assists that accompanied his 37 points.
In a series where the Wolves must score a lot of points to have any hope of victory, credit Saunders for coming up with a game plan that exploited the few weaknesses in the Lakers' defense. Hudson can create his own shot (or get fouled trying) against Fisher, one of the league's slower point guards. The Wolves' also exposed Shaqulle O'Neal's disinclination to come out and defend the pick-and-roll, or mid-range jumpers by undersized backup center Marc Jackson. And Saunders also belatedly acknowledged his team's three-point shooting prowess. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, the Wolves' sealed their victory with three treys (by Garnett, Anthony Peeler, and Hudson, respectively) in the first three minutes of the third quarter, upping their lead from 14 to 23. For the game, they nailed half of their 14 three-point attempts, after launching only five in Game One. They need to average more than a dozen in the remaining games of the series, as it spreads the floor, taxes the Lakers' capable but aging defenders like Rick Fox and Robert Horry, reduces the double-team traps on Garnett, and, not incidentally, provides points in bunches.
Sitting Joe Smith in favor of Anthony Peeler helps generate a more freewheeling offensive rhythm, as A.P. is one of the Wolves' most intelligent passers and a threat from long range, while Smith's myriad injuries prevent him from pivoting for his turnaround jumper, or moving much at all on the court. But the real benefit of the lineup change is on defense. It obviously made no sense to waste Wally Szczerbiak's energy fruitlessly chasing Kobe Bryant. Substituting Peeler for Smith not only shifts Wally on to the less peripatetic Fox, but gives A.P. a crack at Kobe. Although overshadowed by the heroics of KG and Hudson, Peeler played a marvelous game on Tuesday. Although not as big as Wally, he has become a far superior on-ball defender this season, particularly from the waist down, constantly moving his feet and relying on his quick hands and keen instincts for steals off the dribble. "Even in Game One, guys were going, `Damn, why wasn't A.P. on Kobe?'" Hudson said revealingly on Tuesday.
Why indeed? The key moments of Game Two occurred at the end of halftime, when Peeler pick-pocketed Kobe in the backcourt and waltzed in for a layup, then pressured Bryant into another turnover that led to a buzzer-beating three-pointer to close out the half. Afterwards, Phil Jackson noted that Bryant's sub-par performance (27 points on 9-28 from the field) was due in part to the slight shoulder injury he received trying to dunk on Rasho earlier in the game. (Kobe, who made no excuses for his play, got what he deserved. Rasho had position and was waiting for him as he drove to the hoop. When you try to facialize your opponent's starting center in the playoffs, you better expect to get hammered.) But Peeler's dogged D, supplemented at times by Kendall Gill and even KG for a four-minute stretch, offered much more resistance than Wally's hand-waving scrambles.
Despite the whupping administered by the Wolves on Tuesday, it would be absurd to discount the Lakers as anything other than heavy favorites in this series. During its journey to three championships, L.A. has encountered much more adversity than a first-round tie and their next two games at home against a team that has never won a playoff series. Shaq, who spent all his non-game time during the first four days of the playoffs jetting off to attend the birth of his child and the funeral of his grandparent, will not be as sluggish as he was on Tuesday.
But perhaps the most revealing comment about what the Wolves are up against came from Kobe at a press conference following Game Two. Noting that the Lakers have pretty much had their way with opponents over the past month, an L.A.-based reporter asked Kobe what it felt like to have someone take the game to his team for a change. "First of all, it doesn't feel good," Kobe said calmly, then smiled. "On the other hand, it kind of excites you, because you know the playoffs are here. I can't wait to get back to the Staples Center and play again."
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