One Night in May: The Minnesota Timberwolves' Last Great Roar

Eric RhodyCorrespondent IMarch 21, 2011

I picked up the paper this morning to read my daily dose of sports news. March Madness is in full swing at this point, and the upsets and buzzer beaters that are sure to follow will make great news meat to chew into later.

The NBA season seems to be overshadowed around this time of year. The season is winding down, and outside of the lower playoff spots, we already have a good idea of who will be the teams to beat in the playoffs.

I flipped to the NBA page regardless, to glance over the records. My eyes fell on the Minnesota Timberwolves current placing. At 17-54, it's the worst record in the Western Conference. The terrible records and play from the Timberwolves has become commonplace since the years have gone on. Every year I hope we have a bad enough record to draw a pick in the draft that guarantees us a franchise player, and every year I am disappointed when we fall one pick out of place.

Don't get me wrong, I love watching the Timberwolves these days. It seems like for the first time in years, we have a legitimate direction. Kevin Love is a treat to watch, and all the other young guys on our team binding together and playing hard is awesome.

We don't win too often, but when we do, you can see the joy in all the players' eyes of their hard-fought victory. The most fun games are when we square off against a powerhouse like the Spurs or Lakers and push them to their limits. Just this past Friday, the Wolves played evenly with the Lakers, and even led for the majority of play, at the Staples Center no less. Though the Lakers pulled away at the end and won 98-106, it's fun to see our guys stay competitive with a team like that, even if just for one night.

The post-Garnett years have been ugly. It's hard to pinpoint the absolute worst year, but the 2009-10 squad with a Kevin Love that had yet to get the minutes he deserved, and an injured Al Jefferson was pretty horrid to watch. Jefferson led the team in points-per-game, with only 17.1. Poor Kurt Rambis' first year as head coach ended in 15-67.

As I scanned the rest of the paper, I noticed the Wolves were squaring off against the Sacramento Kings, the team with the second worst record in the West. The Kings, huh? They used to pretty good in their own right. Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac in their prime were a force to be reckoned with. In fact, had it not been for a questionable Game 7 in the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, the Kings probably would have won an NBA Title in their glory years.

I looked at the matchup one last time, then smiled as I remembered that once upon a time, these two teams were at the top of the NBA world.

The 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves were (and still are) the best in team history. Kevin Garnett posted the best numbers of his career, winning the NBA MVP that season. He was finally given the teammates he needed to bring his game to the next level. With the additions of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, along with roleplayers like Troy Hudson and Trenton Hassell, the Wolves went on a tear through the entire Western Conference.

Despite the Lakers being the heavy favorites to win the West (and even set the NBA record for wins) with Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining Shaq and Kobe Bryant, the Wolves posted a franchise best 58 wins, enough to win the West. Cassell had the best season of his career, and Sprewell played like he was in his prime again.

With this team in place, the Wolves and head coach Flip Saunders were expected to finally get the playoff monkey off their back. For seven straight years before then, they had lost in the first round. Finally, with a real team, they were poised for not only a trip past the first round, but an NBA Championship run.

The Wolves made quick work with the Denver Nuggets, shoving aside a young Carmelo Anthony and company, winning their first playoff series ever 4-1.

But their next opponents would prove a much greater challenge. The aforementioned Kings were hungry for a title, and the series would test who wanted it more. The two teams traded hard-fought victories to start the series, before the Wolves won a nail-biting overtime contest at the ARCO Arena, with Hassell making a clutch block on Peja Stojakovic to defer his potential game-winning shot.

The Kings won the next contest, still at ARCO, 87-81 to tie the series up at 2 apiece. A return to the Target Center put the Kings back on the ropes with the Wolves decisively winning, 86-74. The Kings struck right back and embarrassed the fatigued Wolves at ARCO, 104-87. This set up a Game 7 showdown at the Target Center, where both teams would require all the desire, dedication, and determination they had to move on and face the Lakers, who had beat the Spurs 4-2 and had a four days rest ahead of both teams.

The crowd at the Target Center was electric for the biggest game in their franchise's history. The first Game 7 in franchise history all weighed heavily on Garnett. As the NBA's Most Valuable Player, he was expected to carry the team to victory. Garnett was also pressured by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who proclaimed that day as "Kevin Garnett Day."

In addition, the biggest game of his career fell on his 28th birthday. To say Garnett stood up to the challenge is an understatement; he possibly had the best game of his career that night in May. He dropped 32 points while picking up 21 rebounds, while playing a sweltering 41 minutes. Cassell also had good night, scoring 23 points and racking up seven assists. The Wolves were fortunate in that the Kings normally precise shooting seemed to fall apart, as they shot less than 40 percent from the field.

Still, despite Garnett's amazing game, the contest still remained close. Cassell made two free throws at the 3:10 mark before the Kings stormed back, closing to 79-75 before Garnett stole a pass, drew a foul and made a free throw with 31 seconds left. Doug Christie made it 81-80 with a three-pointer with 16 seconds to play.

After two more free throws by Cassell, Christie fired an airball three-pointer and Garnett blocked Brad Miller's layup out of bounds with 2.5 seconds remaining. The Kings had one last chance, Webber head faked Garnett and made a last gasp potential game-tying three throw that bounced out of the rim as time expired.

The Target Center exploded in jubilation as Garnett leapt up on the scorer's table in joy. He stepped back down and deeply hugged coach Saunders. It seemed that even though they would have to win two more series to win a championship, they had already won it. Despite the fact that they had to win two more series to be true champions, they had to face the Lakers on four day's rest with an injured Cassell.

The Wolves put up a fight against a stacked Lakers team with four future Hall of Famers in their starting lineup. They quickly fell behind 3-1 before winning Game 5 and putting the series at 3-2. Game 6 also showed hope with the Wolves taking advantage of the Lakers' foul problems, making 24-of-26 free throws. They led much of the third but fell apart in the final 12 minutes, making only 9-of-21 shots and turning the ball over seven times.

The final score read 96-90, and the dream season was over. The Lakers didn't fare too well against the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, losing four games to one in a series where the Pistons dominated defensively, stunning the Lakers and the sports world.

But with almost the entire team returning next season, not to mention a Garnett who could only get better, it was assumed that the Wolves would make another strong playoff run, and even an NBA Championship win.

Unfortunately, like many Minnesota follow-up teams, things fell apart. Cassell and Sprewell bickered with ownership over contract agreements, with Sprewell famously stating "I have a family to feed" when offered a three-year, $21 million contract.

Garnett continued to play close to the same level he had in his previous MVP season, but the contract issues exacerbated an already shaky team morale. The end result was Saunders, the coach of the Wolves for eight years, being fired midseason, and a 44-38 record that didn't make the playoffs. Cassell and Sprewell departed at the end of the season; Sprewell never played in the NBA again.

Since then, the team has gone through three head coaches and traded their superstar Garnett to the Boston Celtics, where he finally won the championship he deserved.

Still, this author remembers that one night in May, where all of the frustration from years past culminated in one glorious playoff moment. My only hope is that someday, the Minnesota Timberwolves will have a moment to match that, or even surpass it. The NBA is a dynasty dominated league, with an astounding 50 percent of its titles won by either the Celtics or the Lakers.

But maybe one day, just once, a team in Minneapolis can pull together in a run for the ages...


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