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Snakebit


So the Timberwolves took care of business, winning their last three games to finish off a franchise-best 51-victory season, good enough to finally secure home court advantage in a first-round playoff series. And what does this snakebit ballclub get as a reward? A Shaq-in-a-box booby prize. A nightmarish match-up with the three-time defending champion Lakers. Just like that, the Wolves are the biggest underdog among the sixteen playoff teams hoping to advance to the second round.

For those who haven't been paying attention, the Lakers did not treat the first half of the regular season seriously. Their behemoth center, Shaquille O'Neal, delayed treatment on his ailing toe and then slowly worked himself into shape through his team's first 30 games, resulting in an 11-19 record. But over the past six weeks or so, O'Neal has reestablished himself as the NBA's dominant player, the alpha force in a devastating duo that includes Kobe Bryant, overrated as an MVP candidate but a marvelous clutch performer who can create his own shot whenever he wants.

Obviously half-bored by the pre-playoff preliminaries of the regular season, the Lakers proved they could turn up the intensity when the situation warranted, such as when they needed to maintain their psychological mastery over the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, teams with the second- and third-best records in the NBA this year. No team will admit it, of course, but everybody still knows that, with the possible exception of San Antonio, opponents who encounter the Lakers in the playoffs have to fight off the feeling of inevitable doom.

To make matters worse, the Wolves are particularly ill-equipped at the moment to offer stern resistance down near the basket. Center Rasho Nesterovic--who, like everyone else, was steamrolled while trying to defend Shaq during the regular season, but did hit 15 of 21 shots in the last two games with L.A.--has not been the same since spraining his ankle in the second half of that final Lakers tilt. In the Wolves' last game against Memphis Wednesday night, Rasho was repeatedly beaten down the floor for layups and in the air for rebounds by Stromile Swift and Pau Gasol. Mentally, he has reverted to the tentative reactions that plagued him during his first three years in the league.

Then there is power forward/center Joe Smith, who sat out the Memphis game after hyperextending his knee in practice. Even before that injury, Smith guessed he was at-best 70 percent recovered from other ailments suffered throughout the season. These have slowed his movements and made him extremely prone to fouls, reducing his minutes and the effectiveness of his defensive rotations when he is on the court. That leaves backup center Marc Jackson, whose energetic play has been uncommonly effective in the past two weeks, but lacks the size or bulk to be an effective deterrent to Shaq.

Is there a way for the Wolves to beat the Lakers? Sure, but it will take a highly unlikely harmonic convergence. When Shaq and Kobe are on their game, L.A. is virtually unstoppable on offense. As much as any defensive scheme or effort, the Wolves have to hope that Shaq is misfiring on his layups and free throws, to the point where a discouraged Kobe starts hogging the ball. (As is his wont. During one incredible display of selfishness this season, Kobe jacked up 30 shots without issuing a single assist.) It would also help if the referees gave the Wolves' big men the benefit of the doubt against Shaq, whose size, strength, and style engenders the type of contact that almost always creates a borderline decision between an offensive and defensive foul.

There is little reason to expect that any of this will happen, however. Now that the games really mean something, and the Wolves' tall timber are walking wounded, Shaq will likely be a monstrous presence in the low post, to the point where it probably won't matter if Kobe is taking heedless shots. And things could really get ugly if he's making those shots outside the context of the Laker offense.

Most games, particularly in the playoffs, are won with team defense, but in this series, given the firepower of Shaq and Kobe, the Wolves' offense needs to operate at near-peak efficiency for them to have a chance. That means getting out on the fast break for easy transition baskets whenever possible. And it means running a disciplined, time-consuming, but still aggressive half-court offense. Specifically, Minnesota needs to move the ball both inside and outside and from side to side.

As always, the key player in this will be Kevin Garnett. On paper, the Lakers' decision to have Mark Madsen guard KG looks like a pathetic mismatch. But Madsen is a latter-day Kurt Rambis, a relentless banger who knows his role and will devote nearly all of his energy to disrupting KG's offensive rhythm, pushing him a step or two away from his comfort zones in the low post. (Like Rambis, Madsen also has a knack for getting garbage points from offensive rebounds and hitting rare, but often crucial, wide-open shots when opponents ignore him to double-team Shaq and Kobe.) Expect the Lakers to deploy a phalanx of others-Robert Horry, Devean George, Samaki Walker, Rick Fox, even Kobe-to limit KG's offensive contributions.

That's why ball movement will be so important. Past Wolves' teams have passed the rock to set up mid-range jump shots, but this year they have the inside-outside capabilities to further spread opposing defenses. On the inside, Rasho needs to hit that baby hook and whirling, banked-in layup that he has effectively deployed against Shaq in the past, and KG has to go right at Madsen enough establish his own low-post presence. Hopefully, this will set up three-point shots on the perimeter. Wolves' coach Flip Saunders has never been a fan of the trey, but they are vital to his team's chances in this series. Wally Szczerbiak is one of the league's premiere marksmen from long range, a weapon that needs to be unsheathed as a partial equalizer to the offensive prowess of Shaq and Kobe. Likewise, Minnesota has to hope that streak shooters like Anthony Peeler and especially Troy Hudson find their groove from outside, and then feed them while they're hot. Even Kendall Gill-who needs to get some minutes as a Kobe-stopper (er, Kobe-slower)-shouldn't pass up open three-pointers. Yes, they are long shots, literally and figuratively, but in the Wolves' situation as a decided underdog with a plethora of decent-to-great outside bombers, it is worth the gamble.

Had the Wolves been matched up with Portland this weekend, as expected until the Trailblazers blew their season-finale against the Clippers, bench players such as Jackson and point guard Rod Strickland would have been especially valuable performers. Jackson could have flourished underneath against aging center Dale Davis, and Strickland's ability and experience running the half-court offense would have been a nice rebuttal to the savvy of Portland's veteran point guard Scottie Pippen. Against the Lakers, however, the Wolves need Rasho's size down low and Hudson's potentially explosive offense. Saunders will still likely use Strickland as much as possible (his ever-tender groin permitting) to settle his team in the face of playoff pressure, particularly in the fourth quarter of close games. Whether Strickland can stay with Derek Fisher out on the perimeter is a risk the coach will countenance. (Not that Hudson has been a defensive stalwart either in that regard.)

As for Jackson, it might not be a bad idea to pair him with Rasho and KG on the front line (provided Jackson knows the plays and rotations at power forward). This would pry Madsen off KG, or force him to defend the superstar more on the open court, and enable the Wolves to double-team Shaq with Jackson and Rasho. The downside is a depleted bench, particularly if Smith is ailing or in inevitable foul trouble. In this scenario, Gary Trent would have to provide 4-10 quality minutes, which is possible on offense, problematical on D.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, the Wolves' possess the league's MVP in Garnett, hungry to finally prove he can lift his team to a playoff series triumph, and a diversified offense capable of scoring points in bunches. They also have home court advantage and the knowledge that they won 33 of 41 games at the Target Center this season. But the Lakers have Shaq, Kobe, and the supreme confidence and experience under pressure that comes from earning three straight NBA crowns. That should be enough to beat the Wolves in anywhere from four to six games.

On the other hand, I called the Wolves' prospects "hopeless" before this season began, and they've never been more successful. Toppling the world champs would be an enormous boost for this franchise both now and into the future, pretty much ensuring the re-signing of Rasho for next year and KG beyond that. Just don't bet the mortgage on it.


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