Sentimentalists can wax wistful over the heroic battle staged by the Minnesota Timberwolves in extending the heavily favored Seattle Supersonics to the five-game limit before succumbing in the first round of the NBA playoffs last week. Bereft of both of their two-bit big men and essentially relying on only a seven-man rotation, Minnesota still managed to rattle Seattle by resorting to a high-octane, "small ball" style of play before fatigue and inexperience turned their muscles and minds to mush. Tempting as it may be to romanticize the first real bit of Wolves playoff lore, however, this was a surprisingly competitive series primarily because the Sonics underachieved. Clearly burdened by their history of failures and narrow escapes in previous first-round encounters, Seattle's coaches and players (with the exception of nonpareil point guard Gary Payton) moved with the lugubrious deliberation and affected nonchalance of men consciously trying not to panic. Just a tad more depth or poise is all it would have taken for the Wolves to pull the upset--after which they would have been steamrolled by Shaq and the L.A. Lakers in very dispiriting fashion.
But rather than indulge in cheap boosterism, cheap cynicism, or hackneyed generalizations like the Seattle series being "a good learning experience" for the youthful Wolves, let's take a couple of legitimate, long-term silver linings from the playoffs into the summer as we anticipate the onset of the 1998-99 campaign.
Begin with the enhanced level of respect and affection that developed between Wolves coach Flip Saunders and his players during the course of the Seattle series. Saunders was far from perfect: In particular, his reluctance to use guard Reggie Jordan (a defensive bloodhound who could have been especially effective on midrange jump-shooters such as Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins) to spell overworked 35-year-old veteran Terry Porter and the other perimeter defenders hurt the Wolves late in the series. But after the Wolves endured a 25-point defeat in Game 1, Saunders's small-ball gambit surprised Seattle and prompted the deeper, more-talented Sonics to adjust to Minnesota's quickness and outside shooting. Put simply, Saunders was bold, decisive, and successful during the most pressure-packed time of the season--and the players noticed.
Perhaps even more important than Saunders's willingness to scramble the status quo in order to steal victories in Games 2 and 3 was the coach's steadfast reliance on Kevin Garnett as the focal point of the offense despite his constant turnovers in the second half of Game 5. While KG's horrid performance doomed any chance the Wolves had of winning the series, Saunders's decision was a shrewd declaration of faith in an emerging superstar who got a valuable taste of heightened playoff pressure--and failure--in a learning process that still has at least seven years and $126 million to go. Furthermore, as the general manager and trusted confidant of personnel director Kevin McHale, Saunders is far more vested within the organization than most coaches. That there was no grumbling or dissension from other players over the less-than-successful decision to go with Garnett during the most important game in franchise history also bodes well for the Wolves' long-term future.
The other bright development during the Seattle series was the defensive effort and all-around play of point guard Stephon Marbury. As marvelous as Marbury has been offensively during his first two years in Minnesota, his defensive play has been at best marginally adequate. The lingering question was whether he was conserving his energy to maximize his offense or whether he simply lacked the instincts to play good defense no matter how hard he tried, à la Chris Carr. The Seattle series dispelled doubts about Marbury's defensive potential. While hardly a star, his hustle on rotations keyed what might have been the team's best extended defensive performances of the year during the middle games of the series, and his 12 steals led all players, including Seattle defensive stalwart Gary Payton.
On offense, Marbury's woeful 31 percent shooting accuracy doesn't reflect his importance to the Wolves' attack. After Marbury racked up 25 points in Game 2 and delivered 11 assists with no turnovers in Game 3 (both of them Wolves victories), Seattle essentially decided to double-team him the rest of the series, facing him up with Hawkins and using Payton for traps or to help out whenever Marbury tried to penetrate. As a result, shooting guard Anthony Peeler was frequently wide-open for long-range three-pointers during Games 4 and 5. But Marbury--who was fatigued by his intensified defensive play, the increase in his playing time, and the constant attention he received from two of the league's better defensive guards--converted just six of 26 shots and rarely penetrated enough to draw fouls and free throws. Nevertheless, at age 21, he proved himself a worthy matchup (at both ends of the court!) for the 30-year-old Payton, who is the best point guard in the game. If Marbury continues to play defense as well as he did last week, two or three years from now he will be Payton's heir apparent.
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