Touching from a distance: Wolves/Lakers 2003, game 4
Since there will be no basketball for the foreseeable future and I’d kind of forgotten how terrible and nervy I used to feel when the Wolves were in the playoffs, I thought it might be “fun” to reach back into Youtube’s dark ether and extract some of our past lives. Lets talk 2003. I’m living in New York, with little money to speak of and no cable, watching the Wolves in dark bars, drinking what many might consider to be “too much,” feeling sad a lot.
The Wolves are the fourth seed in the playoffs but as foul luck and the ridiculously stacked Western Conference would have it, the Lakers are the five. After getting shelled at home in game 1, the Wolves come back to blow out the Lakers in game 2. Then, improbably, after blowing a five point lead with seconds to play and conceding an absurd four-point play to Kobe (David Stern actually apologized for that one) the Wolves manage to salvage game 3 in overtime (in LA no less!). And so game 4 was shaping up to be the decisive game of the series; either the Wolves would go up 3-1 with two more games to play in Minneapolis or the series would be tied 2-2. So I watched game four. And it was almost as nauseating as I remember it.
The first thing to realize is that, after your friend KG (who kinda maybe should’ve been MVP that year?), this Wolves team was, shall we say, terrible. Wally and Troy Hudson were vying to be the team’s second best player. Rasho Nesterovic and Anthony Peeler were vying to be the starter most likely to look like they had eaten peyote during warmups. 36-year-old Rod Strickland (!) and 34-year-old Kendall (effing) Gill, the latter sporting daintily manicured dreads with bleached tips, both averaged over 20 minutes per game. Gary Trent and Joe Smith saw meaningful court time. Friends, this team won 51 games.
The next thing to remember is that despite the fact that the Lakers had something of a down year in ’02/’03, they still managed to cast a strange spell on the Wolves. Normally a poised team running a fluid, well-crafted offense (they were fourth in the league both in offensive efficiency and turnover rate), against LA the Wolves would endure fits of chaotic, careless play. They would rush shots and overdribble. They would scramble aimlessly on D and make strange decisions. It felt like some sick dream.
The central, most terrifying specter in that dream was, of course, Big Shaq. In those days, Shaq was more of an ideology than a basketball player. He created a field of meaning all his own, a zone that absorbed and reinterpreted all of the game’s received wisdom: the dynamics of on-court space and player movement, the contours of a half-court possession; in Shaq’s heavy aura, the idea of the game was fundamentally changed.
And you can see all of this in the first quarter of game 4. Watch how everything Rasho knows about basketball is rendered meaningless by Shaq’s raw force. Rebounding position? Contesting shots at the rim? Helping on penetration? These are outmoded concepts in Shaq’s world. Think about that and then consider the idea of a young Kobe Bryant slashing into the paint and about the array of shooters the Lakers would spread around the perimeter. Think about attempting to defend all of these grim possibilities at once and you begin to get an idea of what Rasho, KG and the Wolves were up against. (This was clearly true for every other team in the league for that matter–but physically and temperamentally Rasho was particularly ill-suited to the task).
Mainly thanks to three towering KG fadeaways, the Wolves were able to hang with the Lakers early on. But they were struggling to execute on offense and Diesel was, according to color man Tom Tolbert, “fully aroused” (gross). Things looked a little ominous but over the next two quarters the Wolves were blessed with a few pieces of good fortune.
First, they were able to get their heads together defensively. They applied full court pressure after nearly every made basket–occasionally with Garnett hawking the ballhandler–which prevented the Lakers from easily settling into the triangle. Marc Jackson replaced Rasho and, after initially falling into that same state of thrall at Shaq’s comprehensive presence, began to deny the big man his choicest spots on the court. The Wolves used aggressive double teams to force the ball out of Shaq’s hands; maybe most importantly, they began to rotate more decisively, preventing cutters from having easy runs to the lane. The Lakers began settling for outside shots–clearly the lesser of three evils–and (second piece of good fortune) Kobe, Fisher, Horry and George were missing those shots.
The third stroke of luck was that the middle three games of that series were literally the high water mark of Troy Hudson’s quixotic career. He had never before scored at least 25 points in consecutive NBA games; but in games two, three and four he went for 37, 27 and 28. He hit impossible fading threes off the bounce (12 out of 25 of them!); he knifed through double teams, kissed the ball high off the glass from desperately shallow angles and looked good doing it. He was a vision of fearless, kinetic, volume-scoring energy. The game of basketball as it had always played out in Huddy’s aspirational imagination had suddenly, finally become real. And it was never like this for him again. (But even at this, his finest moment as a professional basketball player, Troy Hudson wasn’t really a point guard. He was never as good at creating a dynamic team offense as he was at attempting really difficult-looking jumpers.)
When Hudson made his fifth (and, sadly, his final) three of the day, with 1:46 remaining in the third, the Wolves took an 11 point lead. An improbable thought began to worm its way into our minds: this weird, mostly mediocre team seemed on the verge of going up 3-1 on the three-time defending champs. But there were signs of trouble. The Lakers’ defense had effectively disrupted the Wolves’ offensive continuity and so, given Hudson’s transcendent glow, the Wolves went to a steady diet of pick-and-roll. Which was ok, as long as Hudson was hitting his shots; but as soon as he went to the bench (and, in the fourth, went cold) it became clear that the Wolves’ ball and player movement had stagnated. Just when the Wolves should have put the game away, they endured a painful-to-watch stretch of turnovers, forced shots and bad possessions.
* * *
At this point, in between offering his typically grandiose bloviations and priggishly dissecting the semantics of almost everything Tom Tolbert said, Bill Walton made a real, salient point. (He would do that from time to time when he wasn’t too busy heedlessly contradicting himself or comparing a player to a jazz musician–and in fairness to Walton, Tolbert was kind of a boor himself. This was not a great broadcast team.)
The Wolves, said Walton, would suffer down the stretch because they lacked a true blue-blooded number-one scoring option. Which sounds weird because Kevin Garnett was clearly one of the top five players of his generation. He was a genius-level defender whose freewheeling disruptions prevented the Lakers from ever finding a real offensive rhythm. For a man so impossibly long and willowy, he was a fine ballhandler and a majestic jumpshooter. And he was an elite rebounder despite being forced to simultaneously defend all five positions on the floor. But attacking the rim, getting easy baskets and drawing contact? These things just did not come naturally; and for this reason, although he was always the Wolves’ most talented offensive player, he was never a truly elite scorer like Kobe or Duncan or McGrady.
From their star down to their twelfth man, the Wolves relied for their scoring on synergistic execution and open jumpers. And so when the game got hot against a team like LA, and well-crafted offensive sets were harder to come by, their offense would sometimes devolve into a slog of one-on-one battles and contested j’s. And that’s what happened here. Wally dribbled into double teams; KG forced some deep, fading jumpers. As the Lakers did their fourth quarter thing, the Wolves hit just three field goals in the last seven and a half minutes.
This last sickening part I remember pretty well: Wally misses a pristinely wide open, game-tying three in the game’s last minute; KG and Devean George trade long distance bombs; Shaq casually discards Rasho to tip in Kobe’s miss with 19 seconds left and give the Lakers a three point lead; KG gets fouled at the rim but misses the layin and then misses both free throws. And that was it. The series was in their hands and then it wasn’t. Their spirit was broken and they never got that close again. The Lakers cruised in six.