For someone who still answers to the sobriquet of Da Kid, Kevin Garnett seems old and tired these days. He has taken the Minnesota Timberwolves two steps further than they've ever gone in the playoffs—to the Western Conference finals, against the Los Angeles Lakers—but Garnett, who just turned 28, doesn't appear to be enjoying the ride. The strain of serving as the T-Wolves' version of a Swiss army knife has drained joy from his expressive face and sucked energy from his 7-foot, 240-pound frame. He is so spent when he goes to the bench that he can barely lift his arms to acknowledge fist bumps and high fives.
But if you watched closely on Sunday night, you could see the shadow of a smile cross Garnett's face. It happened as he left Game 2 with 38 seconds remaining and his team on the verge of a series-tying 89-71 victory at the Target Center. He touched fists with coach Flip Saunders and—blip—there it was: a slight raising of the corners of his mouth. Then it was gone, and a weary look returned. If Da Kid were a musician, he'd be Miles Davis.
Perhaps Garnett believes that adopting a stolid bearing is the only way he can help his injury-plagued team compete against the high-and-mighty Purple and Gold in a series that many considered over before it started. Oh, did we say high and mighty? We meant distracted and disgraceful. Full of themselves after a 97-88 victory in Game 1 last Friday, their fifth straight postseason win, the Los Angeles Lollygaggers bowed to Minnesota's pressure, falling behind early and trailing by double digits most of the second half.
"We didn't expect them to come out with that bravado," said L.A. coach Phil Jackson. Really? Is there anything in the histories of Garnett, swingman Latrell Sprewell and even Mark (Mad Dog) Madsen, a former Laker who's a battle-ready banger off the bench, to suggest any other response? It was one thing to allow Garnett his 24 points and 11 rebounds, quite another to roll over after clutch-shooting Sam Cassell played only the first 43 seconds because of back spasms and related hip pain. Los Angeles made heroes out of backup point guard Darrick Martin (15 points and zero turnovers), shot-addicted forward Wally Szczerbiak (six field goals on 16 attempts) and perpetually overlooked center Ervin Johnson (who bumped and banged Shaquille O'Neal despite giving up two inches and 90 pounds). Upon learning at halftime that Johnson had outscored O'Neal 5-4, Saunders told his assistants, "We should get this box score framed."
The Lakers may still win the series—the next two games were scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday at the Staples Center—and go on to take the championship. But even if they do, they will be remembered less as a dominant team than as one in need of periodic defibrillation during a tempestuous season. Kobe Bryant, who scored only eight of his game-high 27 points after halftime, and O'Neal, who finished with 14, copped blas�, we'll-get-'em-at-home attitudes after Game 2. "Blame it on the rain," O'Neal said when asked about his desultory Game 2 play, which included 4-of-10 shooting from the floor and 6-of-14 from the foul line. (That's a song by Milli Vanilli, the immortal imposters, so feel free to draw your own parallels.)
Oh, what a difference a day makes. On Saturday the contrast between Shaq's happy-go-lucky Lakers and Garnett's serious-as-root-canal Timberwolves was stark. After being all but unstoppable with 27 points and 18 rebounds in the opener, O'Neal was an engaging, egocentric sideshow after practice, whether skewering general manager Mitch Kupchak ("I'm the real G.M. of this team"), holding forth on his legacy ("If I keep playing, my name will be in-scripted in the NBA bible for many years to come") or assessing his place in the league ("Everybody wants to play with the Diesel because I make people's games easy"). You know you're somebody when you refer to yourself in third-person nickname.
Karl Malone, the 40-year-old power forward who had limited Garnett's effectiveness in their Game 1 battle (KG had 16 points and 10 rebounds to the Mailman's 17 and 11), was reveling in his role as the selfless elder statesman, an ancient who, like Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, had sacrificed much to search for the noble prize. Fueled by the Mountain Dew and Red Bull he drinks before games, Malone not only played physically ("He can still lay the wood on you," said Garnett afterward) but also reached deep into his bag of tricks—slapping at the ball when Garnett brought it down in the middle of a move, using his knees to keep Garnett from establishing good post-up position and leaking out on the fast break when Garnett did make it to the hoop. Enjoying himself mightily, Malone refused to divulge his different strategies for dealing with Garnett and the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan, whom the Mailman had held to an average of 175 points over the last four games of the Western semifinals. "It's different," he said. "That's all I can tell you right now."
At about the same time Malone was leaving 'em guessing, Garnett was answering his postpractice questions in a pensive monotone, weighing his words as carefully as a greengrocer weighs his broccoli rabe. Garnett usually comes across as honest and thoughtful—an exception being his comments last week about the weapons he'd be packing to Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings, an unfortunate metaphor for which he apologized—yet the chip on his shoulder is large enough to accommodate the rump of his 315-pound teammate, Oliver Miller. Garnett talked about "being very wary of people," remembering how "you guys have doubted me" and emphasizing that negative press is "fuel for me." He was unable to specify his complaints ("There's so much, I can't even remember it all"), perhaps because his image is in fact a positive one, perpetuated by a press that likes and respects him and overlooks his prima donna primping. No one, not even Michael Jordan at the height of his fame, takes longer to shower and show up than KG.
Garnett talked some basketball, too, praising Malone as "probably the greatest power forward ever to play the game, though [ Minnesota G.M.] Kevin McHale will probably kill me," and expressing doubt—carefully—about the Game 1 strategy of deploying him at point guard. "It's not easy to be the point person, then try to find rhythm somewhere else," he said. "But it's something I've got to do."
Saunders had moved Garnett to the point because Minnesota was getting what assistant coach Randy Wittman called "short-clocked"—that is, taking too long to get into its sets because of pressure applied to de facto playmakers Sprewell and Fred Hoiberg. Putting Garnett at the point took care of that, but it presented other problems because, once past midcourt, his duties had only just begun. He would usually dribble-handoff to Sprewell, then run to either block, where he is most comfortable. Because he also had to set the pick in pick-and-rolls, he would then dash to the wing or the elbow and set a screen for Sprewell, Szczerbiak or Hoiberg. If nothing came of that, he might even go back and grind for position in the low post. Garnett may be exceptionally quick, but accomplishing all that in less than 24 seconds was a job for the Flash.