? McHale and coach Flip Saunders have made it clear that Hudson and Szczerbiak have to earn back their playing time. "Bringing guys back is harder on a losing team because there's finger-pointing and confusion," says McHale. "But when you've been playing well and the guys coming back start complaining, you just say, 'We were winning without you. So shape up.' " Szczerbiak says he's fine with that. "I know my role is different," he says. "This team is so close right now, nothing can upset it."
?Garnett has the will to make it so. "It's historically true that a team with major new parts needs time to blend before it can contend," says Saunders. "But how about the Lakers in 1979? Magic changed them right away through his personality and leadership. Kevin has those same gifts."
This is Garnett's ninth season, but his and Magic's situations are similar. Though teammates refer to him as Big Ticket, or just Ticket, the 27-year-old Garnett is still in many ways the Kid, his energy and charisma defining—nay, dominating—the franchise. Sprewell and Cassell will play follow-the-leader only if the leader is someone they truly respect. After signing a five-year, $100 million extension over the summer, the 6'11" Garnett ended the week leading the league in rebounding (14.1 per game) and ranking fourth in scoring, and he was the favorite to win his first MVP award. In the face of those credentials, as Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni puts it, "Sam and Latrell are O.K. with not being alpha dog."
None of the three are shy about expressing their opinions, but Garnett is the only one with carte blanche to be really critical, as he is from time to time of Cassell. After Sudden Sam jacked up a few unwarranted jumpers against the Kings, KG got in his face with a message that could be interpreted as, "Samuel, perhaps you could show a tad more discretion in your shot selection." Only Garnett did it in fewer words, a couple of which had four letters.
They are different personalities: Sprewell, quiet and intense; Cassell, playful and outgoing; Garnett, imperious and private for the most part but thoughtful and eloquent when he takes the time. (To many, Sprewell has been the biggest surprise, a generous and dedicated teammate, "a coach on the floor," according to Szczerbiak.) Together the Big Three have formed one of the NBAs most unlikely mutual-admiration societies. They didn't know one another well before McHale made the summer deals that brought Cassell from the Milwaukee Bucks and Sprewell from the New York Knicks, but Cassell says, "It's like we were just waiting to get together." Separately, they talk about their synergy.
"There was never a question that this was Kevin's team," Sprewell says. "He's the $100 million man, so to speak. Not even so to speak. But he deserves every penny."
" Kevin Garnett is a guy who cares about your feelings," says Cassell. "He respects the last guy on the team. No one gets treated different. You want to know why this is working? That's why it's working."
"I'm having a lot more fun than I did in yesteryears," says Garnett. "When it seems like you're the only option on a team, it gets to be hard. It used to be that I had to score, then come down on the other end and guard the best player. I'm not saying I don't focus as intently now, but with Sam and 'Trell here, it's not as much detail."
"What I didn't understand before was KG's basketball knowledge and awareness," Cassell says. "He's a guy who studies the tendencies of every single player in the league. Nothing gets past him. You don't see that in a young guy, a guy of 27."
"It was Kevin's all-around game that impressed me, the things you don't see unless you play with somebody," says Sprewell. "He can post, he can shoot, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he passes, he runs the floor, he makes free throws. What player in the league does that? Tim [ Duncan] rebounds and defends and blocks shots, but he can't do it out on the perimeter like Kevin."