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You gotta give Garnett his (past) due

WashPost: Minnesota forward deserving of MVP, though Duncan still NBA's best player.

It would be silly to try to build a case against Kevin Garnett being the most valuable player of the NBA. He led the league in rebounding at 13.9 per game and he was tied for second in the league in scoring with 24.2 points per game. Not many 7-footers can do all the heavy lifting KG did this season. And most important of all, he led his team to the best record in the toughest conference, the West. He never takes a night off, never throws in a clunker of a game, never dogs it, never fails to fight through injury.

He has even learned to play through disappointment, which became necessary after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs year after year after year. Garnett, still just 27 years old, might have reached the symbolic point of greatness a few years earlier had flaky Stephon Marbury not bolted because he couldn't stand to be the second-highest paid player on KG's team. But now that he has two top-shelf complementary players in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, Garnett has proven he can deliver in the spring. Having learned quickly how to work with two new teammates, his play is being certified as we speak by earning the MVP award and by having led Minnesota into the second round of the playoffs.

If I had a vote, I'd have cast it for Garnett, whose versatility is astounding. He averaged five assists per game, yet ranked 11th in the league in blocked shots, with 2.17 per game. Only three players in NBA history — Wilt, Kareem and Elgin Baylor — exceeded Garnett's points, rebounds and assists averages in this 2003-04 season. He's the first player in 29 years, and just the fifth in history, to lead the league in both total points (1,987) and total rebounds (1,139) in the same season. I'd have voted for Garnett because, in doing all that, he had a better season than Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic, who played brilliantly in the absence of Chris Webber, and because Garnett did everything a little bit better than Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal.

There's just one "but" however.

Tim Duncan.

Garnett is worthy of this season's MVP award, but Duncan is the best player in the game.

Is that hypocritical? No, not really. There were seasons when Charles Barkley (1993) and Karl Malone (1997) were absolutely deserving of being voted MVP, even though Michael Jordan was the league's best player. Just because the distinction is small and deals with a million subtleties doesn't mean it isn't worth making.

It ought to count in a player's favor if he is so prolific he simply overwhelms the entire league, which is what Jordan did in the late 1980s, or if a player elevates a franchise that has no pedigree, which is what Garnett has done with the Timberwolves. Garnett is the Timberwolves — the entire franchise and its brief history.

Still, if I were starting a team today, I'd take Duncan. I'd take Duncan over Shaq because Duncan, as we were reminded Sunday, is simply a more skilled player. He never has to rely entirely on brute strength. I'd take Duncan over Kobe because Duncan is never, ever dismissive of his teammates, or of his coach. I'd take Duncan, though narrowly, over Garnett because Duncan is just as good a rebounder (second in the league to Garnett), a slightly better shot-blocker (4th in the league to Garnett's 11th), shoots essentially the same percentage, but night after night is more than willing to go down on the low block and engage in the chest-to-chest, rump-to-rump contact with the Shaqs and Yaos and any other nasty monsters who have to be confronted. So few players are willing to do that now (don't we appreciate Alonzo Mourning even more?). Duncan has to get points for wanting to do that. As Chris Webber says so insightfully, "Center isn't a position, it's a state of mind." Duncan isn't a center, not really; he's listed as a forward. But when necessary he has that center's state of mind.

Duncan is so consistently good we take him for granted. Did you see the way he outplayed Shaq and Karl Malone in Game 1 on Sunday? And while it may not appear on the surface that Duncan is much of a leader, it's not a coincidence his team plays with the exact numbing, metronomic sameness — day in and day out — that Duncan exhibits.

It's the study in contrast between the Spurs' quiet efficiency and the Lakers' loud excess that makes this second-round playoff series the most compelling competition of the 2004 playoffs.

I'm not saying there's nothing else worth watching. The Eastern Conference second-round matchup between the Nets and Pistons could be grueling and brutal in the way Detroit-Chicago was in the late '80s when a defensive-minded Pistons team sought to bludgeon Chicago's prolific offense. Jason Kidd and the Nets want to run; Larry Brown's Pistons want to hammer. By the way, how about the Pistons' starting five? Let's see, there's Richard Hamilton, former Wizard, starting at one guard spot. There's Ben Wallace, former Wizard, starting at center. Then there's Rasheed Wallace, former Bullet, starting at power forward. So there are indeed Bullets/Wizards in the playoffs; they're just not playing for Washington in the playoffs. (There, once again that's as close as we get to a local story in these playoffs; how sad is that?)

It might seem like a waste to dwell for very long on the East, but it's produced the only Game 7: New Orleans at Miami on Tuesday. And that series is also producing a great young player hardly anybody has paid attention to all season: the Heat's Dwyane Wade. Most other seasons, he'd have been rookie of the year. Though he isn't as physically imposing as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, I'm not certain Wade doesn't control a game better than both of his more hyped rookie classmates. There's a savvy he's demonstrated in this series, even in the games Miami has lost, that Anthony and James may lack at this stage.

Chances are, of course, you haven't watched Heat vs. Hornets. If you're like me, you're wondering why the first round of the playoffs has lasted so long, why an appetizer like Heat-Hornets has crawled on longer than the Summer Olympics. (I'm not kidding, the Summer Games take 16 days, while Heat-Hornets will be settled on Day 17). That's insane, but no more so than the Lakers-Spurs playing just three times the first eight days of their series. There's no rhythm, no consistency to when the games are being played, which is in great part why Phil Jackson took his Lakers back to Los Angeles after Sunday afternoon's game rather than just hang around San Antonio for three full days taking sightseeing trips to the Alamo.

The NBA playoffs are really just starting now that there are seven real contenders (plus Miami or New Orleans). And Minnesota is the fresh face worth paying close attention to, though the disappointment of all those first-round exits is nowhere near the kind of disappointment usually required before becoming a championship team. Even Jordan had back-to-back years of getting his butt kicked in the conference finals before breaking through. Yes, Cassell and Sprewell have been in the NBA Finals before, but not with this group, not with Garnett. Sacramento just might have had enough disappointment of its own to prevail in six games over Minnesota.

Basketball fans have grown accustomed to spending spring nights watching the Lakers, Spurs and Kings, the Pacers, Pistons and Nets. What we're seeing for the first time is Kevin Garnett moving to the big room, where confronted with a wounded but rejuvenated Sacramento team, we'll see whether his regular season achievement conveys to the meaningful part of the playoffs.