When we last left our early-millenial Wolves, their hearts had been broken in Los Angeles. It was now May of 2004, just over a year later and a whole lot has changed. Rasho, Kendall Gill, Rod Strickland and Anthony Peeler had all blessedly moved on, replaced by Sam Cassell, Professor Sprewell, Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson. Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson had both missed significant portions of the season with injury. The team was still potent offensively, but with the addition of those veteran scorers their attack was craftier, more deliberate, and better balanced.
But the team’s real improvement was defensive, where they improved from 88 points allowed per 100 possessions in ’02/’03 to 84.2 the next year. Hassell’s manic on-ball D, Johnson’s stoic rim protection and even Spree’s boundless energy all had a galvanizing effect on the team’s defensive culture and particularly on their star. Because that year, KG was on a different plane of existence. He led the league in PER, win share and defensive rebound rate (he was third in overall rebound rate). Ron Artest was the official Defensive POY that season (please), but defensively KG was out of his effing mind. He was, rightfully, the league’s MVP. As a result of all of this, the Wolves had the league’s second best record (behind the Pacers of all teams–bet you’d forgotten that) with 58 wins and earned home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
Although in ’03/’04 Rick Adelman and Pete Carrill’s Kings still played fluid, deeply pleasing basketball and boasted the league’s second best offense, they were not quite the beautiful creatures they had been in previous years. (I’m sorry both about the awful music and the adoring shot of the Maloof bros in that video I just linked to. I recommend watching it on mute and closing your eyes at the seven second mark.) Peja Stojakovic was third in the MVP voting (if you can believe that), but Chris Webber was just returning from microfracture surgery and Bobby Jackson had missed 30 games with injuries. But they were still nasty (in a good way); and over the course of that Conference Semifinal series with the Wolves, they put up a hellacious fight. Going into the seventh game, both teams were battered and spent.
Most significantly for the Wolves, Cassell’s hips, his back, his ears (for real) were all in various states of decay. He was a hobbling wreck. If your only memory of Sammy was the poisonous mess he made of the following year, take care to recall: he was genuinely awesome in ’03/’04; and lacking a serviceable backup point guard as the Wolves did, he was essential to the team’s success. He was among the last of a dying breed: the crafty, un-athletic midrange jumpshooter. He had little muscle definition to speak of. He was not quick. He never really jumped. But he would perform this strange, hunched crabwalk, insinuating himself into the lane, patiently coaxing his defender into an overplay or a moment of imbalance. And when that moment came, the ball would almost instantaneously be up and out of his hands. He yapped incessantly and hoisted shots without compunction. Especially if you were a small, aggressive defender, he was an impossible and infuriating cover.
So it was for Mike Bibby at the beginning of Game 7. Despite his failing body, Cassell took advantage of the early-game chaos, pulling up in transition or backing down the smaller Bibby and lacing those pure, nervy jumpers. (It’s really rewarding, by the way, to watch Sam really stick it to Bibby, whose grayly managerial play never really won me over.)
Further complicating the Kings’ plans was Trenton Hassell’s series-long envelopment of Stojakovic. Peja was, and remains, a player with fine off-the-ball instincts and next-dimension shooter’s touch–he had a .624 true shooting percentage in 2004 and was a truly terrifying scorer. But he never seemed inclined to fight for position against physical defenders or to power his way to the rim and/or foul line if his shot wasn’t falling (see how politely I said that?) Hassell was Peja’s nightmare. He tirelessly pursued him around the court, fighting over screens and denying passing angles. When Stojakovic did catch the ball, Hassell would put his chest on Peja’s numbers and extend both arms straight up into his line of sight–most memorably in the final seconds of the Wolves’ 114-113 OT win in game 3. Even when Peja would beat him off the dribble–which was not often–Hassell would doggedly recover and contest the shot. And Hassell’s energy plainly inspired Szczerbiak, normally one of the league’s truly awful defenders, to at least give it his best shot when he was in the game. The Wolves’ defensive plan was to protect the paint against Bibby’s penetration and force the ball outside into the Hassell buzzsaw. Peja never figured it out in this series and ended up with a dismal eight points on 3-12 shooting in Game 7.
So things were going pretty well for the Wolves. Cassell hit five of his first seven shots; Szczerbiak provided energy and sharp shooting off the bench; the Wolves’ defended with precision and intensity and Sacto’s execution was sloppy–they committed bad turnovers and hit only 33% of their first half shots for a season-low 31 points. The Wolves had a 10 point halftime lead. But the Kings were an awfully good team and Adelman was (is!) an awfully good coach; you just knew it wouldn’t last.
Sure enough, things began to turn in the third quarter. It was clearly inevitable that no matter how well the Wolves defended, the Kings would, at some point stop turning the ball over and start hitting. In an adjustment that nearly saved the game for the Kings, Adelman switched the longer, more rangy and aggressive Doug Christie onto Cassell. Suddenly that hip was looking awfully gimpy; Sammy never again found his rhythm as Christie fervently pressured the ball in the backcourt. Two Cassell turnovers led to Christie breakaway dunks. Bibby hit a three, Christie hit two; Webber who, though badly diminished athletically, still had nasty footwork and nice touch, started doing work down low. By quarter’s end, that lead was down to two.
But this is getting stupid. Because if this story is about anything it’s about Kevin Garnett in his transcendent hour as a T-Wolf. In stark contrast to the barking, bloodshot quasi-bully of the recent Celtics runs, this KG was purely, totemically calm. Which might be because, by the middle of the fourth quarter, he was too wretchedly tired to lift his hands over his head, much less assail anybody for their chronic illness. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Cassell was on the bench and KG was running the show. That is to say: he was defending with his customarily mind-altering fervor; pulling in every defensive rebound; bringing the ball up the floor; moving with purpose without the ball; punishing Vlade or C-Webb or whomever was unfortunate enough to be guarding him on that possession; repeat.
Here’s what the fourth quarter looks like. Garnett plays the two-man game with Wally, cutting to the hoop for an easy layup. The next time down the floor he take a high-low pass from Ervin Johnson, absorbs a foul and finishes with a jump hook. Two possessions later he blocks Webber at the rim and then takes a Szczerbiak pass for a finger-roll. Now we enter some pretty hallowed territory. KG faces the basket at the elbow extended. Webber takes a poke at the ball and in so doing, shifts his weight forward ever so slightly. KG responds with a crossover that should be impossible for limbs that willowy. C-Webb buckles. KG takes three long strides and crushes the ball through the hoop. Everybody freaks out.
Not done. Thirty seconds later, after nearly giving the ball away and dribbling out the shot clock, Cassell desperately shovels the ball to KG who–I still can’t believe this–drains a fading, contested, mercilessly cold-blooded three with the shot clock running down. The crowd now enters a state of full ritual ecstasy as Garnett coolly rejects a Webber dunk attempt. KG didn’t dominate the game, he became it; in his exhaustion, he emptied himself of all his soulful mania, all his desperate desire and allowed the game to fill him up. It was so beautiful.
There are very few moments from this game that I actually remembered before writing this. What adheres most solidly aren’t the facts but the sensations, the aura of the moment. I remember KG’s graven fervor and the humid intensity of the entire series. I remember the Minneapolis crowd shrieking at every made basket and defensive stop, imbuing the Target Center with a frantic energy that I can’t even imagine possible any longer.
And I remember a strange sense of unease and anticlimax at game’s end. I realize now that this is because thanks to sloppy execution, bad fouls, ridiculous Kings’ shotmaking and their star’s crushing fatigue, the Wolves very nearly blew a nine point lead in the game’s last two minutes. But they didn’t. Because, although with the Wolves up three and 2.2 seconds remaining, KG whiffed on his attempt to steal the Kings’ inbounds pass and then inexplicably bit on Webber’s shot fake, C-Webb’s potentially game-tying three (barely) rimmed out as time expired. I remember I fell off my barstool. Bring on the Lakers.