Kevin Garnett needed help. No, not just with points, rebounds, assists, defense, playoff victories—little things like that. Help with the pregame theatrics. In seasons past Garnett performed his psych-up ritual on the sideline as a solo act, stomping his feet, clapping his powdered hands, gazing skyward, doing everything short of setting his facial hair on fire before finally joining the extras at center court, tastefully tardy. � Ah, but now Garnett has a couple of supporting actors who can match his histrionics. During introductions swingman Latrell Sprewell and point guard Sam Cassell embrace as enthusiastically as lost lovers meeting on a Paris boulevard. As the tip-off nears, Sprewell walks out first, cornrows neatly arranged, serious as an angina attack, ready to rumble. Then Cassell strides onto the floor, sweat glistening on his bald head, joy in his eyes, rubbing his palms together as he selects a target, or targets, for his nonstop chatter. And in a few seconds...yes, Kevin is here! The stage is set! Game on!
Beyond the dramatic upgrade, the arrival of Spree and Sam has brought something far more compelling to the Minnesota Timberwolves: With their help, the team is poised to make a Beamonesque jump in the Western Conference. Playoff futility-seven straight first-round exits—haunts the T-Wolves, yet they believe they can soar all the way to the Finals, refuting the notion that a team must move incrementally toward a championship. "Well," says Cassell, "they've been taking baby steps around here for years. It's time for a leap? The best evidence of their progress: a 40-16 record at week's end that was third to the Sacramento Kings' 40-14 and the Indiana Pacers' 41-15.
Sprewell and Cassell have aided and abetted the estimable Garnett so well that Minnesota's whole is better than the sum of its parts, and those parts are better than ever. Through Sunday, Garnett (24.9 points per game) and Cassell (21.0) were surpassing their career highs in scoring, and Sprewell (17.9) was averaging more than he had in three of his last five seasons. Certainly general manager Kevin McHale, no raving optimist, is pleased with his team's progress. "We have size," he says. "We have scoring. We have defense. We have speed. We can play up-tempo or grind it out. We have enough pieces. Of course, as my old friend Bill Walton always says [ McHale goes into a Walton impersonation], 'You have to do it at the biggest of moments in the biggest of times.' But I look at this team and think we can."
Still, there's a long way to go, and Minnesota does have issues, primarily the reintegration of two erstwhile starters into the rotation, point guard Troy Hudson (out much of the season with a sprained right ankle) and small forward Wally Szczerbiak (out the first 53 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot). "That's our million-dollar question," says Garnett. Hudson is a frenetic gunner who roars around picks like Tony Stewart around the Daytona oval, ready to fire—a sharp contrast to Cassell, who seeks his own shot, too, but probes and measures and slows down the game. Szczerbiak, who returned last Thursday to a standing ovation in a 92-75 win over Sacramento at the Target Center, has pouted in the past when he didn't get enough touches, an even greater likelihood now that Sprewell and Cassell are so prominent in the offense.
Factor in center Michael Olowokandi—who, after missing two months because of arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, came back last Friday in an 88-87 road win over the Detroit Pistons—and, well, that's a lot more mouths to feed. But what team, even in the powerful Western Conference, does not have issues? The Kings must see if Chris Webber's return this month (from a left knee injury and an eight-game suspension, five for failure to comply with the league's drug policy) messes up their chemistry. The champion San Antonio Spurs must find a consistent scorer to complement Tim Duncan. And the Los Angeles Lakers must learn whether Karl Malone's recovery this month from a sprained right knee restores order to a team disrupted by the potential lame-duck status of Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson.
"I saw Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper figure out a way to play together," says McHale, speaking of the Lakers' championship teams of the 1980s, "so I'm not going out on a limb here to say that bringing back Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson is no big deal." Sacramento sixth man Bobby Jackson agrees. "Getting Szczerbiak back is huge for them because they've been this good without a true three," he said after getting rocked by the T-Wolves. "This is a team that could definitely be there at the end of the season."
In fact, the Timberwolves will be even stronger when all their returnees are back for five reasons.
?The stylistic difference between Hudson and Cassell will keep teams off-balance, and playing them together will provide an antidote to good small-guard teams such as the Kings (with Jackson and Mike Bibby) and the Lakers (with Gary Payton and Derek Fisher).
?The 6'7" Szczerbiak provides a much-needed long-range dimension to a team that through Sunday had made only 197 threes, third-fewest in the league.
?At 34 and 33, respectively, Cassell and Sprewell will be fresher down the stretch once their minutes per game are cut from the upper 30s to the lower 30s.