The breakout player in the Minnesota Timberwolves- Los Angeles Lakers first-round Western Conference series, which at week's end stood at 2-2, was Minnesota guard Troy Hudson, who through four games had averaged 27.3 points. The takeover player, though, was teammate Kevin Garnett. Like a long-limbed tree, the 7-foot, 220-pound Garnett was able to shade both Lakers superstars, center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant, yet still contain his primary responsibility, usually power forward Robert Horry or Mark Madsen. "A defensive predator," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders calls his franchise player, which would be praise enough had Garnett not also been the series' best offensive player.
That KG (who averaged 29.8 points, 16.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and two blocked shots in the first four games) has filled up box scores is hardly a revelation. But in the presence of such postseason titans as O'Neal and Bryant, Garnett's remarkable versatility made him the focus of the series. Even after fouling out 12 seconds into overtime of last Thursday's Game 3, Garnett knelt in front of the bench like a giant praying mantis, prodding and pleading his team to its unlikely 114-110 victory on the Lakers' home court. "Whatever part I had to play, I was going to play it," Garnett said later. "If I had to be a cheerleader without the skirt and pom-poms, I was going to be that." That foul-out notwithstanding, Garnett's ongoing ascension was in evidence on Sunday during the Lakers' 102-97 Game 4 win. On at least three occasions his defender was whistled for an off-the-ball foul, the kind of call Garnett got infrequently in the last six playoff seasons, all of which ended in first-round exits.
Still, the lasting image of Garnett from Sunday was of him missing two free throws (with 15.7 seconds left) that could have cut the Lakers' lead to one. So often he has been criticized for not doing enough in the postseason, and though he did virtually everything in the first four games of this playoff, his ultimate validation had yet to arrive, as Garnett well knew. "It's on me to get us out of the first round," he had said before the postseason. "It's a challenge I'm ready for."