Posted Oct 17 2010 11:41PM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:10PM
This whole notion of favorite this and favorite that that the writers here at NBA.com have been sharing runs contrary, at a fundamental level, to what most of us learned while prepping for a career in sports journalism.
The ethos of the profession, as I learned it, made the idea of "favorite" anythings a no-no. Having favorites suggests a lack of objectivity, a threat to fairness, a tilting and filtering of the information that we are charged with conveying to our audiences. Fans need to care but reporters aren't supposed to -- can't afford to -- if they hope to pass along their messages unaltered.
Which has always been a nice ideal. For robots.
It's impossible, though, to work at this for long without being affected by, and developing some feelings about, some of the events and people we cover. You spend so much time around them, and are an eyewitness to so much of what they go through, that you can't help but feel something human, at least, when things go well or not so well.
Which brings me to my favorite game: Game 7 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals, Sacramento vs. Minnesota.
Whaaa? A second-round game? True. It was not a Finals game, nor did it determine the champs of a conference. It was just a second-round clincher between two teams that won nothing that year or, for that matter, any year since. It does, however, rank as the ultimate game for a franchise and a player that I covered daily for nearly a decade and a half.
When the Timberwolves beat the Kings 83-80 on that day more than six years ago -- May 19, to be exact, Kevin Garnett's 28th birthday and the fourth anniversary of Malik Sealy's death in a highway crash -- the emotional release alone should have blown the roof off of Target Center. To heck with gaudy rings or glittering trophies, this was all about personal demons and steamer-trunk baggage, about history and hopes and hard work all knotted up and coming to a head in the most personally validating (for Garnett) and desperately needed (for him and his team) game I've ever witnessed.
It's easy now to think of Garnett in terms of the Boston Celtics, their 2008 championship, that dizzy "Anything is possible!" cry after Game 6 sealed it and that bunch's trip back this spring, all the way to Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.
But back in 2004, Garnett's destiny and the Timberwolves' still were intertwined, stuck in a rocky, repetitive playoff rut.
The Wolves, by that point, had gone one-round-and-done in the seven previous postseasons, a process of eliminations that was bordering on cruel. Play into June? Ha, these guys were lucky to play into May back in the days of best-of-five opening series.
This time, though, was different. The Wolves had nailed down the No. 1 seed in the West and had dispatched Denver in five games in the first round. Up next was Sacramento, a team as frustrated as Minnesota by postseason failures. One of them -- the Kings or the Wolves -- was going to feel it again. One of them was going to take a big step toward something special.
Naturally, conditioned by the seven previous springs, I picked Sacramento to win in six games. On paper, it didn't even seem that close. The Kings were stacked with solid talent and savvy veterans: Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Brad Miller. Their coach, Rick Adelman, had gone to The Finals twice with Portland and he led Sacramento to within a win of The Finals the previous playoffs.
Minnesota, by contrast, was built around Garnett and two salty mercenaries, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Wolves vice president Kevin McHale had played the percentages on those two, relying on their motivation and focus a) with a new team, b) in or near a contract year. Cassell, 34, became an All-Star in his 11th season. Sprewell, 33, averaged 16.8 points and 37.8 minutes as the third option, while doing everything else he was asked by McHale and coach Flip Saunders.
But the rest of the roster? Oy. Trenton Hassell was a late-camp pickup after being cut by the lowly Bulls, yet became Minnesota's defensive stopper. The center spot that season belonged to Michael Olowokandi, Ervin Johnson and Oliver Miller. Fred Hoiberg was an underrated 3-point shooter off the bench and Mark Madsen was an energy guy, but Wally Szczerbiak was hurt most of the season and other spots were manned by the likes of Troy Hudson, Gary Trent and Ndudi Ebi.
Did we mention, though, that Garnett -- the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2003-04 and worthy of it the season before -- was on Minnesota's side?
"Kings in six" seemed almost too generous when the Wolves coughed up their homecourt edge in the opener. They wasted Cassell's 40 points with 15 turnovers in the first three quarters, then shot 32 percent in the fourth quarter, with Garnett and Sprewell combining to go 8-for-35. Minnesota won the next two, including Game 3 in overtime, 114-113. The teams traded the next two victories, and Sacramento dominated Game 6, 104-87, to force the finale.
Things by that point had gotten rather heated.
"It's Game 7, man. That's it. It's for all the marbles," Garnett said in a Target Center hallway about 48 hours before tipoff. "Sitting in the house, I'm loadin' up the pump. I'm loadin' up the Uzi. I got a couple M-16s, a couple [9mm guns]. I got a couple joints with some silencers on them. I'm just loading clips, a couple grenades. I got a missile launcher ... I'm ready for war."
The NBA didn't appreciate the imagery, but didn't mind the hype.
Sprewell showed up in the locker room before Game 7 wearing a Brett Favre jersey -- this was 2004, remember, but Spree was from Milwaukee and wanted no part of the Vikings' 0-4 Super Bowl jinx anyway. Then he, Cassell and the other Wolves went on the court and marveled like everybody else in the gym at the signature game of Garnett's career.
Minnesota led by six after one quarter and by 10 after two. But Sacramento outscored the Wolves 29-21 in the third quarter. It was 64-62 early in the fourth when Garnett, eschewing the heavy artillery, seized the evening by its throat. At which point all the criticism he had heard -- valid stuff that he had earned from Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and others -- about not being much of a closer in big games just melted away.
Garnett scored Minnesota's next 10 points on a flip, a hook, a jumper, a finger roll and a slam. At 74-70, with 3:39 remaining and Cassell struggling just to get across midcourt, the ball got shoveled to Garnett out top, 26 feet away, shot clock dwindling. He launched, the buzzer brrrppped! and the ball settled into the net.
The 77-70 lead held up -- though only after Webber's 3-pointer at the horn bounced off -- and Garnett leaped onto the scorer's table, shaking a fist in triumph.
In 20 head-to-head games prior to that season, the two All-Star power forwards' numbers had been reasonably close (Garnett at 25.9 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 5.3 apg with 11 victories to Webber at 21.3, 9.6, 3.3 and nine). But in the clincher, it was a blowout. Garnett: 32 points, 21 rebounds, two assists, five blocks and four steals. Webber: 16 points, eight boards, four assists, no blocks, one steal.
"KG's probably my favorite player," Webber said that night. "I love going against him. He told me, 'Get healthy, keep your head up.' I told him, 'Don't let them frustrate you in the Laker series.' "
Garnett's 14 points in the fourth quarter matched all five Sacramento starters' and he scored all six of the Wolves' baskets in the period. "[TNT broadcaster] Steve Kerr made a comment that I was up on the table jumping up and down and how I was a little [overly excited] about the win," Garnett said. "Steve Kerr's never been out in the first round seven straight times."
Over the next 12 days, Garnett and the Wolves did get frustrated by the Lakers. That L.A. crew of Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, creaky and divided a year removed from their 2000-to-2002 three-peat, was ready to be toppled that spring but Minnesota was too hobbled to do it. Cassell was sidelined with hip and abdominal injuries, playing legit minutes in only two games of the Western Conference finals. Hoiberg and Darrick Martin were plugged in as point guards, but anti-climax had set in: Lakers in six.
It unraveled quickly for Minnesota after that. Saunders was fired the following February as Cassell and Sprewell all but sabotaged the 2004-05 season. The loss of three first-round draft picks as penalty for the Joe Smith salary-cap fiasco caught up with the roster and, even with Garnett in his prime, the Wolves won a total of only 65 games in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Loyal to the end -- well-paid and suspicious of change, too -- Garnett never pushed for a trade. Yet ultimately, both he and the franchise needed one, which was how he wound up in Boston.
But that night in May in 2004 was more than just a dress rehearsal for another Celtics' banner. It was the highlight night in a more humble franchise's history, with their greatest player at his absolute best.
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