Inexperience will cost Timberwolves
By BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun
Quick, name the best player in the Western Conference final.
From 1999 to 2003, if you had answered that question by immediately blurting out Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan, you would have prompted debate but escaped embarrassment.
This season, despite another appearance by O'Neal and Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, the best player will be on the other team. His name is Kevin Garnett.
Garnett is Batman. He's Spiderman. He would be Wonder Woman, too, if that weren't sexually inappropriate. He's a 7-foot freak of nature who has led a Minnesota Timberwolves club that never previously had won a playoff series to within eight victories of an NBA title.
After Garnett's jaw-dropping, 32-point, 21-rebound performance in the Timberwolves' 83-80 victory in Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, he jumped up on the scorer's table at the Target Center and celebrated with the delirious fans. TV broadcaster and ex-player Steve Kerr was slightly critical of Garnett, suggesting he was too excited about a second-round win.
"Steve Kerr never has been out in the first round seven straight times," Garnett responded.
Coincidentally, the team that knocked out the Timberwolves in the first round last year was the Lakers, in six games. The T-Wolves will be looking for revenge on that front, but senior citizens in Minnesota also have not forgotten that the Lakers originally were the Minneapolis Lakers -- hence the name -- before they were stolen by L.A. in 1960.
Unlike last season, Minnesota has home-court advantage this time. And Bryant, who is facing rape charges in Colorado, will have to endure another one of his uniquely long days (court appearance in the morning, airplane ride, game at night) before Game 4 of this series.
But Bryant usually plays sublimely in those circumstances, and most of the other factors are in the Lakers' favour, too. Remember, Garnett may be Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman rolled into one, but the aging Shaq still sporadically can adopt his Superman persona.
"I admit, I wasn't hungry last year," said O'Neal, whose Lakers had their run of three consecutive championships snapped. "But I am now."
Yours truly was one of the few pundits to pick the Lakers to defeat the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs in the last round, and in the correct number of games, too. That's the part you should remember, folks. Focus on that.
You really shouldn't dwell on the fact that our theories as to why the Lakers would win -- L.A.'s Gary Payton would throw San Antonio's Tony Parker off his game, and the Lakers' Karl Malone would be the difference-maker -- could not have been any less accurate. Malone played some decent defence on Duncan, but we're stretching.
Ultimately, the Lakers advanced because they got a miracle shot from Derek Fisher to win Game 5 and the Spurs shooters couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. But we did pick the Lakers in six, okay? Concentrate on that.
Strangely, after just about everyone thought the Lakers would lose the past round, just about everyone thinks they'll win this time. Despite past successes, we'll avoid the instinctive urge to go against the grain.
Here's what we think will happen:
- The rested Lakers will find a way to win one of the first two games in Minnesota, and then they'll protect home court the rest of the way. Garnett will be the best player, but the T-Wolves' inexperience will catch up with them and they'll fall on their own swords with a rash of untimely turnovers.
- Lakers in six. Again.