The Third Wheel

Rough and ready: Latrell Spreewell
David Kern

With 23 seconds left in the first half of last Friday night's Timberwolves-Lakers game in Los Angeles, Latrell Sprewell ignored an open teammate on his right and sped hell-bent for the basket. Two nights earlier, the Wolves had endured a turnover-plagued first quarter that started them toward a loss to Golden State. Now they were getting pasted 42-29 by the vaunted Lakers just before intermission. Clearly, it was time for a wake-up call.

Sprewell collided with Kareem Rush, drawing a foul. After sinking the first free throw, he clanked the second, leapt into the fray along the right side of the lane to grab the rebound, and was fouled again, nailing both free throws this time. After a Shaquille O'Neal slam with just three seconds on the clock, Spree took the inbounds pass and went up with a Hail Mary shot between two Laker defenders near half-court. Swish. Just like that, the Lakers were deprived of a double-digit lead and a psychic edge heading into the locker room.

In the third quarter, Spree poured it on, racking up 19 points in his inimitably blue-collar fashion. The 6'5" swingman doesn't have a classically graceful jump shot. He pushes the ball with the bottom of his palm rather than flicking it with his wrist, and often leans in toward the hoop instead of going straight up or fading away. There have been a handful of games this season when his accuracy has been particularly horrid, prompting him to pass up shots and look for other ways to help the team.

When Sprewell gets hot, it's often marked by an uptempo flow that allows him to shoot on the move--catching and launching as he slashes across the lane; getting his man airborne with an up fake, then dribbling past him for a floating runner over the opposing big men; or simply taking it right to the hoop, kamikaze style, for two points or a foul. This entire bag of tricks was unpacked in that majestic third quarter Friday night, a game in which Spree finished with 35 points (involving 12 trips to the free-throw line), seven rebounds, three blocks, and--on a night when Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell had four turnovers apiece--nary a lost dribble, travel, or bad pass.

Spree's surge was yet another reminder that the Wolves possess three scorers capable of taking over a game. Each has been his team's "go-to" guy at some point in their respective careers. Whenever the Wolves have boasted a similar "three-headed monster" (be it Laettner-Person-West, Laettner-Rider-Gugliotta or Garnett-Marbury-Gugliotta), there have been squabbles and hurt feelings over the division of touches and crunch-time shots. Flip Saunders once defined chemistry as an established pecking order accepted by the players. "Good chemistry," for these Wolves, means that one of the team's triad of stars--KG, Cassell, Spree--always has to swallow being the third wheel. Sprewell has done so without a hint of complaint or controversy. "Humility like that, it shows Spree is all about winning," says Wolves center and elder statesman Ervin Johnson.

Indeed, there has been really only one game this year when the Wolves consciously tried to feature Sprewell in their offense. That was Spree's return to New York, where he so obviously wanted to show up Knicks exec James Dolan for trading him away this off-season. His 31-point performance that night indicated that, were he to clamor for a larger role, Spree's scoring average would likely be boosted enough to merit serious all-star consideration this season. But the team's record would not be nearly as gaudy as its current 33-13 mark. Instead, as in L.A., Spree seems to measure situations and assert himself on offense only when it seems necessary. It's no coincidence that the Wolves have won nine of the ten games in which he led the team in scoring.

Beyond his offense, what Sprewell has contributed to the Wolves with absolute consistency is defensive effort and physical ruggedness at both ends of the court. He has made the Wolves a more resilient ballclub, playing a style better suited to the physical and mental brutality of the playoffs. For all their fiery leadership and remarkable skills, Garnett and Cassell remain predominantly finesse players. Although Spree is a canny defender who uses guile and anticipation to compensate for the inevitable limits on his 33-year-old body (among active NBA players, only Gary Payton has logged more minutes as a perimeter defender), his style and attitude are about as subtle as a two-by-four between the eyes. And don't think his teammates don't notice.

"Spree helps me out tremendously," says Cassell, who shares a fervent embrace with Sprewell after the two are introduced to the crowd before every Wolves game. "He's a quiet individual, but what happens on the court, he'll just explode." Echoes Mark Madsen, who himself comes by his "Mad Dog" moniker honestly, "Spree never takes a night off. In this league, that is so rare. The other thing that differentiates him is, when it is time to attack, he attacks. And that aggressiveness is contagious."

On many teams, even a talented third wheel can turn into a distracting appendage. The third wheel on the Wolves gives this wonderful ballclub traction and maneuverability.

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