Send in the Clowns

Here comes the circus. Step into the tent and marvel at the world's strongest man. Thrill to the amazing high-wire acrobat, seemingly unruffled by rape charges. Ponder the Human Glove, just slightly scuffed and worse for wear. See the Mystical Sage of Roundball rubbing his soul patch on the sidelines. And don't overlook the rime of the ancient Mailman (or is that just the remnants of Rogaine softening the glisten on that sweat-soaked dome?).

Four of the greatest players in hoops history, guided by the shrewdest postseason coach this side of Red Auerbach, are among the Wolves' opponents in the Western Conference finals that begin tonight at Target Center. Yes, three of the quartet are past their prime, and the skipper may be preparing to ride his motorcycle into the Zen sunset (with the owner's daughter hugging his waist) in a few weeks. Yet that will be of small consolation to KG and his underdog crew once the whistle blows.

It's easy to mythologize the star-studded Lakers, and even easier to hate them for the way they treated the entire regular season as a necessary formality. But now that the games really matter, and championship rings are soon to be sized, it will not be easy to beat them.

Minnesota's last series foe, the Sacramento Kings, just fortified the team's reputation as playoff patsies, capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. As inspired as the Wolves, and particularly Kevin Garnett, performed in Game Seven the other night, they very well could have been on summer vacation by now. Sharpshooter-cum-choker Peja Stojakovic couldn't convert a mere third of his field goal attempts--many of them layups and open jumpers--and the entire Kings team couldn't sink half of its free throws. By contrast, the Lakers are brimming with big-time performers who never play "not to lose." Deep in their bones and their hearts, they expect to win, an assumption borne of talent, experience, and mental toughness. Just ask the Spurs, considered the NBA's grittiest and most cohesive ballclub until the Lakers spotted them two games and then swept them into oblivion with four straight defeats.

Before we inject slivers of appropriate optimism, let's consider what the Wolves are up against. Shaquille O'Neal remains the NBA's most dominant player and poses a match-up nightmare for Minnesota's quartet of centers (five if you count Gary Trent, a prospect that would make Shaq chuckle). Kobe Bryant is the league's most dynamic offensive force in the open court, and hands down the game's best clutch shooter. These two aces in the hole make defending the Lakers a daunting task, for which adequate preparation is almost impossible. In the half-court sets, Los Angeles can run coach Phil Jackson's preferred triangle offense and switch over to the pick-and-roll to accommodate their lesser stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone. When all else fails, the team can get the ball to Shaq or Kobe and dare five guys to try to stop them.

Defensively, Jackson's teams are perennially underrated. This is largely because he stocks his roster with unsung role players dedicated to D (including Rick Fox and Devean George this season) and because the offensive heroics of stars like Shaq, Kobe, and, before them, Michael Jordan, often obscure their capabilities at the other end of the court. Suffice it to say that the now-deposed champion Spurs converted just 39.9 percent of their shots against L.A. in the Lakers' six-game series triumph.

So, how do the Wolves beat this team?

On defense, Saunders needs to rotate in fresh bodies against Shaq. Ervin Johnson will get the first shot, Oliver Miller will emerge from hibernation for five minutes or so each game, and Mark Madsen will be asked to utilize the experience he gleaned from guarding O'Neal for three years in practice when he was with the Lakers. But the key person will be Michael Olowokandi. Kandi was rightfully maligned for his toxic performances against Denver and Sac thus far in the playoffs. But that's because Kandi is a poor decision-maker who seems easily confused by defensive rotations in response to ball movement.

He is far more comfortable, and adept, when charged with the simpler task of guarding one man, straight on, a majority of the time. He has the length and agility to bother Shaq more than any other Timberwolf in the paint. And by now, after such horrendous showings in the previous series, he should have a "nothing to lose, nowhere to go but up" attitude when facing a man-mountain, who, after all, embarrasses everybody at least some of the time. If nothing else, four centers equals 24 potential fouls to use on Shaq, whose ludicrous lack of accuracy from the free-throw line is the Lakers' kryptonite in close games.

When the Wolves dropped last year's playoff series to the Lakers in six games, the people most responsible for guarding Kobe were Anthony Peeler, Kendall Gill, and Wally Szczerbiak. This year's combo of Trenton Hassell and Latrell Sprewell are far stronger defenders than any members of that trio, and it will be much more difficult for Kobe to settle into the devastating scoring rhythm for which he is renowned. This series would also seem an appropriate time for Saunders to break out his array of match-up zone defenses, the best way to utilize KG's defensive quickness and versatility versus L.A.

On offense, I believe the Wolves should eschew the playoff catechism that mandates foul-inducing, low-post primacy, and go for broke with a barrage of long and midrange jump shots. It was painful to hear Saunders infer that Kandi would be one of Minnesota's primary options in this series, given that Kandi's career field-goal percentage on two-point shots is only marginally better than the entire team's accuracy from beyond the three-point arc against Sacramento. In Fred Hoiberg, Spree, Sam Cassell, and Wally Szczerbiak, the Wolves have a better quartet of long-range gunners than any team in the league. Remember how Troy Hudson went off against L.A. in last year's postseason? The Lakers are just as susceptible to that sort of performance this year.

Besides, despite all the hullabaloo about Shaq's newfound desire to defend the pick-and-roll, the effort takes a greater toll on his 340-pound frame than ignoring the Wolves' air-balling centers and roaming the paint in search of layups to swat away and double-teams to administer on KG in the low block. Minnesota has a better chance of getting Shaq in foul trouble by taking charges than it does going at him when he's on D. The Lakers may deploy Malone as the primary pick-and-roll defender on KG, but if Cassell's back is serviceable and Garnett has his usual touch from the perimeter, I'd take my chances on high pick-and-rolls against the aging Mailman and Payton.

The dirty secret in the Spurs series is that San Antonio missed a plethora of open jumpers. So encourage Spree to continue to keep defenses guessing between long-range bombs and slashes to the basket. Find Hoiberg when he drifts to the corner or the top of the arc when L.A. is preoccupied with the pick-and-roll. Let Cassell launch treys in semi-transition and do his little dipsy-doodle lean-and-shoots on Payton by the foul line. And give Szczerbiak a chance to atone for his miserable playoffs last season versus the Lakers.

Game Seven against Sacramento featured a new, improved Wally, someone who actually had a clue about shot selection and when to put the ball on the floor. Buried in the fanfare over KG's scintillating 13-point run in the fourth quarter of that game was how much Szczerbiak enabled him with crisp passes after drawing defenders with judicious drives to the hoop.

Will all of this be enough to overcome the Lakers? Maybe. Probably not. If Cassell isn't forced to the sidelines by injury, Kandi even halfway emerges from his stupor, KG and Spree keep their competitive fires burning at maximum efficiency, and the bombers seize the open opportunities from outside--if all that happens, the Wolves just may ambush an L.A. team that could be temporarily vulnerable to overconfidence in the wake of their thrashing of the Spurs. More likely, Minnesota will turn this into a more entertaining and competitive series than conventional wisdom imagines it will be, forcing the Lakers to prove their greatness. But at crunch time, L.A.'s mental toughness will prevail more often than not. Lakers in five or six--probably six.

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