Garnett's position of record is power forward, but his role is more fluid than that of any other player in the league. He breaks pressure with his ball handling, chases teams out of zones with his outside shooting, attempts to foul out big men with postups. With 458 free throw attempts at week's end, he was only nine shy of his career high. On defense he bumps butts with the behemoths under the basket, yet he also plays in front of Minnesota's 3-2 zone and sometimes chases the ball-handling moths. All that, and he's tied with Bryant for the league lead in triple doubles and ranks behind only the Detroit Pistons' Wallace in rebounding.
Alas, versatility is not always perceived as a virtue in the NBA; multitalented players, particularly big men, are sometimes looked on as soft. This is the perception that has stuck to Garnett—who, despite averaging nearly a triple double against the Mavericks in last year's playoffs, drew the brunt of the criticism for the T-Wolves' three-game flame-out. He accepts the reality of the criticism but rejects the option of changing. "Being versatile is what makes me different," says Garnett But that's precisely the issue, Kevin: Is being so versatile good for your team? Garnett grows a little impatient. "I don't worry about overdefining my position," he says. "I don't fall into discussions of where I fit in. I'm just a basketball player. I do what has to be done to get it done."
He didn't get it done last week against either the Spurs or the Lakers at the Target Center, struggling to find operating room in the post. He has neither the bulk to power through people nor the Duncan-like footwork to maneuver in tight spaces. Muscular, doubling-down defenses can force him out of position, make him turn and face the basket. That wouldn't be a problem if Garnett, the league's best-passing big man, had reliable outside shooters, which Hudson, shooting guard Anthony Peeler and swingman Kendall Gill are not.
None of this is breaking news to Saunders, who can hang at a chalkboard with any other NBA coach. Saunders knows that in the playoffs, a slow-down, pound-it-inside offense is often the way to win. He also knows that a versatile player such as Garnett can best dictate the flow of the game when he's facing the basket in the wide-open spaces. It's a conundrum. But neither player nor coach seems ready to change the best thing about Garnett—that he plays the game the way it should be played. "All I've been hearing is how Americans are too oriented toward one-on-one basketball, they don't know how to pass, they aren't smart," says Saunders. "Then KG is criticized for doing exactly those things. It's hypocritical."
Garnett, who said last week that he still hasn't decided whether to play for the U.S. Olympic team, agrees. "If I have a 12-foot shot and I see a teammate who's wide open at seven feet, I'm going to give him the ball," he says. "Every time. That's the only way to play." And if that style doesn't get the T-Wolves as far as he wants to get them?
Garnett sets his jaw. "I believe it will," he says. "I believe it can. And if it doesn't, it's still the right way to play."