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Friday, April 25, 2003
Updated: April 28, 2:42 PM ET
The Dipper with shooting range

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Big KG has punched the Lakers' Ticket twice in a row now, and shown the rest of the league the way to the Promised Land. He has brought to heel the storied and most hated Shaq Troopers, and also made manifest the fact he's the MVP of the NBA this season.

Can NBA playoff MVP and an NBA title be next?

Kevin Garnett
KG isn't just playing winning ball, he's playing championship ball.
Well, first accomplishments first. If you think about it, the Big Ticket is the X factor of the league -- even more so than Shaquille O'Neal. Several NBA old heads, who actually played and coached in the league, including a couple who actually played with Wilt himself, have been telling me this for a year-and-a-half, and now I see it. "If I could take just one, I'd take Kevin Garnett," they say.

Garnett has the physical dominance of Shaq, only in a different way, vertical intimidation, more peak than mountain, K2 as opposed to Shaq's Everest. Garnett makes counterfeit all lobs to Shaq by coming from the backside, yet he's so flexible, laterally proficient, he can peel off his man to double on Kobe, out by the arc, and force -- yes, force -- Kobe to give up the rock.

Then KG can get his shot, his variety of shots, over any defender. Witness his jump-hook over Shaq during his 65-point game -- 35 points, 20 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, one blocked shot (and at least four alterations) in the T-Wolves 119-98 kidnap-torture of the Lakers in Game 2. Then, after the Lakers said to each other, "You ready? Let's play," The Big Ticket drops a load of 33, 14, 4, 4, 3 in Thursday's 114-110 OT gut-checker at the Stapler.

So. If Phil Jackson and the Lakers think Devean George is the answer to this problem, they are much mistaken, but then they know that. They've held off on double-teaming KG to this point, feeling so imperious that they don't have to double-team anybody.

Pat Riley used to feel this way -- when he had the horses.

The Lakers will have to double-team Kevin Garnett to beat the T-Wolves. Period. End of story. They blew off the Game 2 win at first; that was a Mother-in-Law Game -- can't go down 0-2 at home to start the first playoff series, especially when you've never won one and are being considered for the league MVP. But Thursday night's game was the real revelation for the Lakers. The frustration of playing the Lakers is that they often win, even in the playoffs, by hitting on merely four of six cylinders; they win stifling yawns, with Shaq/Kobe playing at about 85 percent capacity, at least on Shaq's part. Whenever Kobe sees the hoop, even in practice, he's balls-out, but it takes some real doing to get Shaq's attention.

KG and the Wolves have it now.

My NBA old heads saw it first. "Look at him, Ralph," they said to me. "Why he's more like Wilt than anybody, and he's more like Russell than anybody. Kenyon Martin is close, but then again he's not close. Not to KG. He's like Russell and Wilt put together, and with a jump shot -- and I'm talking a great jump shot."

Kevin Garnett
Having Shaq in his face hasn't been a problem for KG.
It's true. When KG gets a good look and fires, the ball hits back iron and pounds straight down ... net barely moves. It's automatic.

So. Cage has the physical, vertical dominance, even more so than Shaq; he has the abominable length, the unguardability, the all-court mastery of the Kwisatch Shaderac, McGrady; he has the pure scoring drive and will of Kobe, which KG tempers appropriately, having more right shooting answers around him than Kobe does; he has the fundamental soundness and rectitude of Tim B. Dunkin; and he even has the goatee of Theolonius Monk, which he can lose any time now, if he wants his endorsements to match his other sick and getting sicker numerology. When Tick learns to calm himself down even more -- it's understandable, the geekdom he sometimes flexes; it's not only good, it's very exciting to be the King! -- and not rush but apply, he may even become the NBA playoff MVP.

With KG ascendant, the T-Wolves are now playing at the top level of the game. Very nearly. They are playing Championship Playoff Level NBA Basketball. There's only one higher level in the world.

As John Thompson pointed out to all us cool night owls, "There is a vast difference between being about to play the game, and being able to winthe game ..." The Wolves are at that doorstep.

The Levels of Basketball are:
  • Winning Championship Level NBA
  • Championship Playoff Level NBA
  • Playoff Level NBA
  • Top-Flight International
  • Regular Season Level NBA
  • Mid-Flight International
  • Scrimmage Level NBA
  • NBDL (or CBA)
  • D-1 NCAA Tournament
  • D-1 Regular Season
  • Junior College
  • High School Varsity (AAAA)
  • Collegiate intramurals
  • High School Varsity (AAA or lower)
  • JV
  • Rec League
  • Rec League over 40
  • Nearly Dead
  • Dead

    Kevin Garnett
    The Lakers don't have the personnel or the D to stop KG.
    Right now the Wolves have advanced to stage 2 -- Championship Playoff Level NBA basketball. They must be aware there is one level left. They must play to close the show. Or not. Some of it is physical. A player can be good enough to compete to his top level, physically. And then, through no fault of his own, the game leaves him behind, just from a physical standpoint ... but with KG, the Wolves have Winning Championship Playoff Level potential.

    First things first. Just as the Kenny the Sage Jet says, "The hardest game to win is the close-out game," KG and the Wolves have to win another game, just to even get to the doorstop of winning; once there, they'll find the oxygen allowance not as generous.

    With the Big Ticket, they can do it. But will they?

    The answer my friend, is between their ears, and, probably, not yet.

    Physically, they can. They have the MVP. No doubt of that. There are point guards Hudson can be held down by, and out-played by, but Derek Fisher and Jennero Pargo are not two of them. Wally S. World must take what the game gives him, stop getting caught up in the moment, realize that there is nothing wrong with swinging it away if he doesn't have the shot, because he is not likely to get the shot on his own. He is not Scottie Pippen. He is Wally S. World.

    KG has no ceiling. He proved it again Thursday night, when the Wolves once more took down the Lake Show. They had already won Game 2 last Tuesday, and won in such a way that made the Lakers adjust to them, which most playoff foes, except the Kings, have not been able to do. Hudson continued his D. Fisher expose. Hudson has proven to be a money point, if error-prone. On one level, this is the highest level, and you can't play mistake-free; the other guy is competing too, and he's good. But still ... if you could put Rod Strickland's head on Troy's body ... but you can't. If you could, I'd put my head on LeBron's body. So Strick gimps around dragging a leg, but, amazingly, does some damage just on guile.

    It all works off KG. The Wolves can apply their pressure only after makes, and Garnett gives them makes against any defense. Garnett shot 15 of 21 in Game 2, over the top of them all, Kobe, Horry and/or Shaq, three championship quality shot-blockers.

    Think about that. That's .714 percent shooting, against a playoff-level intensity defense mounted by the world champions.

    The Wolfies then can front the Laker guards in their press, and force the forwards -- Horry, Fox and Madsen -- to handle. The obvious play, the long overhead pass, even if completed, still leaves them with KG the Shot Blocker to contend with. It all works off Monk.

    For years now, KG has been the difference in the All-Star Game for the West because there is no match-up for him -- not anywhere. He can play two, three, four or five -- everywhere but up top, and, by God, I wouldn't put up top past him. He can always pick up his dribble, pass over the top.

    Kevin Garnett
    On both ends of the floor, KG's intensity and patience is second to none.
    Non-old heads might say, "Wait, the Wolves are a great team! They beat the Lakers in overtime without KG!" Well, not really. KG has ascended now to the uppermost Levels of the Game as an individual baller (the list of the individual levels is too long to get into here; maybe later) -- he not only makes his teammates better (his 7-plus assists were by far the best of any big in the league, better than any non-guard in the league), he also inspires them.

    "I fed off the Big Ticket's energy," said Anthony Peeler after he scored four of the Wolves' 10 in OT, sans KG, in dire need of ChapStick on the bench. Again, this geekdom is fast leaving him, I think; it's the last hurdle between KG and greatness. There's still a naivete. It showed when he let Horry deke him into a sixth foul in OT. You've got to play smarter than that, Tick. It's not a question of whether you fouled; it's whether you unnecessarily put yourself in a position where it looks like you must've fouled, and then the veteran acts out the foul, and there you are, sitting with six. You can't put yourself in that position; if you do, you can't bitch and moan that the referees put you there. You put yourself there. Well, you can bitch and moan, especially if you're Danny Ainge, doing ref instead of game commentary, but what good does it do?

    Peeler's rugged diligence on Bryant and the boards, Jackson's and Nesterovic's lack of fear and positioning under the rack, utter will, and their obvious desire to both please and play up to level of KG, spelled good fortune for the Wolves. Luck favors preparedness.

    Now, for the Rebellion to take hold, the Ticket and the T-Wolves must act as if nothing has happened. They must play as if they are down 1-2 instead of up 2-1. Even if they lose on Sunday, they must quickly forget that. They cannot let Game 5 at the Target Center get away. Wally, Hudson, and especially KG must remain rock-calm. So. The game has come to him. Nothing to do now but allow himself to embrace it, smoothly, like a lover. If he does that, the Lakers can be on their backs without knowing how they got there. Even if they don't go down, KG can make them remember his name, and look to avoid him in the future.

    If he doesn't win it, he's still the MVP. Go ahead, KG. Say it. "King me."

    Dear God. A year ago, the Lakers had, by acclamation, the two best players in the league in Shaq and Kobe. Now, there are days, sick playoff days, when you can only say they have two of the best five. But for these last eight quarters-plus, in the Ticket, they had to face the best. We move on now, from KG, to T-Mac, to A.I., in time.

    Pay attention, Chairman Yao, LeBron, all ye who enter here.

    School's in, baby. For real.

    Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."