Benefit of the doubt doesn't convey with a spot deep in the playoffs. It has to be earned, especially by teams with fresh faces and no postseason pedigree. So there was every reason to think the Western Conference finals might be a short affair, what with the Lakers on a roll and up a game on Minnesota. Let's just say most folks were waiting for a sign of encouragement that the Timberwolves were up to this latest challenge, and I'm not talking about Sam Cassell walking like Fred Sanford into the home locker room 43 seconds into Game 2, his back having betrayed him again.
The Timberwolves have to answer the question every ascending franchise faces, outside the Lakers and Celtics: Do they have the resourcefulness of a champion? When injured and tired and trailing in a series, do they have what it takes to get off the floor and resume the fight? Usually, even in the case of the Bad Boy Pistons and Michael Jordan's Bulls, it takes several years to answer in the affirmative. So it's too early to decide anything definitive about Minnesota just yet.
But the Timberwolves did pass a big test Sunday night, winning big at home, 89-71, in what was clearly a must-win game to have any chance at winning this series, or to even threaten the Lakers for that matter. They put Darrick Martin in Cassell's spot and demanded everything imaginable from all 12 men on the roster, each of whom Coach Flip Saunders put on the floor before halftime.
Of course, the best of those was Kevin Garnett, who may be in the midst of one of the great basketball ascensions during these playoffs. What Garnett must have learned in Game 1 when Shaquille O'Neal torched Minnesota with 27 points and 18 rebounds and took away the Wolves' home-court advantage is that championship-level greatness means doing it every night. Well, except if you're the Lakers, in which case you can it flip on and off like a desk lamp. Garnett's Game 7 against Sacramento is ancient history; it was time for him to lift his team again and he did it.
This time, Garnett put up the kind of nice numbers he put up against the Kings (24 points, 11 rebounds). But more importantly, he forced Martin, Latrell Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak and Mark Madsen to pitch in, while doing plenty of everything himself. Of course, that's exactly what Phil Jackson fretted over before the game. It sounded like silly coach-speak when Jackson told reporters he hoped Cassell would play, because as clutch as Cassell has been in the playoffs over his career, at least the Lakers knew how and from where Cassell would attack. A Cassell-led Timberwolves team is a known quantity.
But the unknown: That's what makes coaches nuts, even a guy with a zillion championships like Dr. Zen. His big fear was that Garnett would have to do more with Cassell out, and would but from different angles on the floor. Garnett would do unpredictable stuff the Lakers hadn't prepared for and that would hurt the Lakers mostly on defense.
And as usual, Jackson knew exactly what he was talking about. Certainly the Wolves would always rather have Cassell, but in this case, with Garnett starting the offense from the top of the circle on many possessions, Sprewell and Szczerbiak were taking shots they might not otherwise. In fact, Minnesota's offense was especially democratic; going into the fourth quarter Sprewell, Szczerbiak and Garnett each had 15 points.
The other big news was that Kobe Bryant was the only Laker who seemed awake. O'Neal, after three quarters, had made two measly baskets, missed 7 of 10 free throws and was no factor whatsoever. Minnesota doubled him quickly and effectively. Bryant had 25 points through three quarters, and nobody else on the team had more than eight. And in this case there was nothing whatsoever selfish about Bryant's shooting, and his six assists through 33 minutes showed how interested he was in involving his teammates. It's just that none of them was up to it.
It took a confrontation with Gary Trent early in the fourth quarter for O'Neal to become agitated. The Lakers showed a little life during a stretch in which they cut Minnesota's lead from 18 points to seven. But the Timberwolves, at the moment we were looking for them to possibly crack, kept out-hustling the Lakers for loose balls, kept grabbing all the key rebounds. The most telling moment of the game might have come when Madsen, the ex-Laker with the bad, bad dance moves, soared in like a condor and tipped in Szczerbiak's missed jumper to push Minnesota's lead back to 14 points and the series out to Los Angeles tied at 1.
There's always the possibility, given that the Lakers didn't really start to play to their potential until the eighth game of the playoffs, that they just got sassy and weren't particularly interested in a Game 2 when they already had the lead in the series. Five straight games -- all victories -- is about as long as the Lakers have played with passion since the middle of the season. At halftime, Jackson told his players they hadn't performed with any real sense of urgency. It's not like they picked it up late in the game, either. Martin, in Cassell's absence, just carved up the Lakers with 13 points, six assists and zero turnovers, which was amazing in that it came in such a high-pressure game. The Lakers were so frustrated that Karl Malone went after Martin and wound up getting ejected in the final moments.
The rough stuff is really yet to come for the Wolves. They travel to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4 this week. But they demonstrated great fight here in Game 2, which might be the sign of encouragement that suggests they are at least headed in the right direction.