Wednesday, April 23
Wolves' surpise party catches L.A. off guard
By Marc Stein
Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.
There is some NBA TV news to dispense below. There are questions to ask about Robert Horry shoving that cameraman, and how much trouble he's in with the NBA office. There will also inevitably be cracks made about the NHL's Wild, since they got to the second round of the playoffs in Year 3, with the local NBA team still waiting ... in Year 14.
We'll get to all that below.
First, though, let's rewind. The Minnesota Timberwolves deserve that much, after they absolutely throttled the Scariest Fifth Seed In NBA History, surprising us all on a couple fronts, even their own local skeptics, with Tuesday night's 119-91 victory.
Surprise No. 1: The Wolves did amazing stuff all night, mainly because they played like they believed they could actually win, a conviction they didn't have in a Game 1 where it looked like they were beaten from the opening tap.
Surprise No. 2: It really was "they." Kevin Garnett stepped out of his uber-consistent skin to make a rare run at 40 points and stepped up at the same time he was being backed up by what Charles Barkley always tells us KG's game needs.
It might have only been one of those stars-in-alignment nights. It doesn't change the fact these Wolves can't beat the Lakers four times in seven games. Yet it was still nice to get a respite, however brief, from all the "Poor KG" stuff, which was temporarily hushed by Garnett's all-around brilliance and the unappreciated folks who work beside him.
Flip Saunders made multiple tweaks and they all clicked. The Wolves showed considerably more full-court pressure and closed down on Kobe Bryant far better than they did in the opener -- moves that made it a faster game. Without warning, the Wolves also had two guys make a run at 40 points, with Troy Hudson -- and his career playoff scoring average of 9.4 points per game -- busting out for 37 and 10 assists. Wally Szczerbiak found the space and opportunities to add 21 points of his own, for a franchise that had never seen anything bigger than a 31-point game in the playoffs.
The Lakers were flat, when only Shaquille O'Neal had reason to be, but they wanted more than a split in Minnesota no matter what they say. The series had serious sweep potential after Sunday afternoon, but KG and his H-E-L-P wouldn't let it happen, finishing the first half with the sort of momentum surge typically seen from the champs. Anthony Peeler stripped Bryant for a layup, and then hounded Bryant into a turnover, and then Hudson rained in a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to stretch a nine-point lead to 14.
Szczerbiak, mind you, says we shouldn't be surprised, and he's probably right. For all their problems and playoff setbacks, they've never caved. They did get swept in the first round last spring, and Garnett was publicly roasted for the first time in his career ... and the response was an MVP-caliber season, 51 wins, home-court advantage and a pretty gritty rebound Tuesday night.
Says Wally: "For a guy like KG to be criticized the way he was, and then to just say, 'Go ahead and criticize me, fair or unfair, and I'm going to use it to fuel me' ... I'm sure every player on this team looked at that and said, 'Damn, I better get with it if our leader is taking that kind of criticism.' I know I did."
Slams and Dunks
MALE OF THE NIGHT
We repeat: Hudson's career playoff scoring average, entering Tuesday night, was a whopping 9.4 points per game. Meaning that he quadrupled his usual playoff output. Quadrupled. We know the Lakers have issues defending the pick-and-roll, but ...
E-MAIL OF THE NIGHT
Kevin Garnett guarded Kobe Bryant for a couple of possessions and completely shut him down. Do you see the Wolves continuing to try this?
STEIN: For a handful of possessions? Definitely. More than that? Highly doubtful. Minnesota would get abused on the boards if Garnett spends that much time on the perimeter chasing after Bryant, and KG wouldn't have the legs to put up 35 and 20 if he had that assignment. Earlier this season against Dallas, Flip Saunders did elect to have KG guard Michael Finley for the bulk of a game, but the Wolves could get away with it against a non-rebounding team like the Mavs. The Lakers ain't the Mavs.Send Stein a question
SOUNDBITE OF THE NIGHT
"The Wild don't have to deal with Shaq."
— Kevin Garnett, on the comparison between Minnesota's NHL team making the playoffs in its third season and his Timberwolves still searching after six straight first-round exits.
STAT OF THE NIGHT
That's how many assists Minnesota got from Hudson (10) and Garnett (7) ... on top of the combined 72 points from Hudson and KG.
STAT OF THE TIGHT
That's how many points the Lakers received from everyone not named Shaq or Kobe, which only matched Hudson's production. Milwaukee's 11 missed free throws in Game 2 at New Jersey merited strong consideration here, but the Bucks won in spite of that tightness.
We can't quite use the word "rejoice" yet, but the news on the NBA TV situation is suddenly good. While the sides continue to negotiate on contracts to make the channel more widely available next season, the league and three cable operators -- Cablevision, Comcast and Time Warner -- have agreed to restore NBA TV on a free basis through April 30.
So if you're a digital cable subscriber on any of those systems, the channel should be there for the next week. And since that covers the portion of the playoffs that NBA TV is carrying live games, that's big.
As a warning, you might have to look around for the channel. On my system, for example, NBA TV doesn't appear in the channel listings but the feed is coming in on Channel 445, right in the heart of League Pass territory.
It's not as good as having NBA TV back permanently -- only DirecTV and Echostar's DISH Network do at present -- but it's a good short-term solution. If you've got digital cable at home, or if you can find a pal who has it, it should be less of a struggle now to catch Magic at Pistons on Wednesday night, Spurs at Suns on Friday night and Tuesday's NBA TV doubleheader, Milwaukee at New Jersey and Boston at Indiana.
Horry told reporters after Tuesday's game that he shoved a TNT cameraman "to make sure I hit him before he hit me." Meaning that Horry, from his perspective, was worried that the cameraman would run into him, camera first, while trying to record footage of someone else. It does indeed hurt to get smacked by a camera, as Horry also pointed out, but it'll be interesting to see how the league rules it. On national television, it looked like a frustrated Horry shoving a cameraman in plain view. That's not quite smashing a camera, or kicking a cameraman, but it certainly could be suspension territory if the NBA takes a hard line. Vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson commenced his review of the incident Wednesday morning.
Oh, yeah. The Nets and Bucks also played a game Tuesday night, and the outcome sets up Jason Kidd to be the big-name point guard with critics to answer. While Gary Payton and Sam Cassell were shooting a combined 20-for-33, to offset the Bucks' 11 missed free throws and 3-point freeze, Kidd had seven turnovers and was forced into a bad shot by GP on the crucial possession in crunch time. Of course, Kidd being Kidd, you fully expect him to rebound.
Scottie Pippen, barely a month removed from knee surgery, will drag himself onto the floor for as much of the Dallas series as the knee can stand. But Pippen didn't guard Steve Nash much in Game 1 and probably won't be able to handle that assignment in his condition, negating one of Portland's favorite strategies to frustrate the Mavericks. Pippen's length and physicality gives Nash as much trouble as the Canadian ever sees in pick-and-roll coverage. The Blazers will have to settle for roughing up Dirk Nowitzki instead, but Nowitzki and the Mavericks know that's coming, too, after Dirk's 46 points in Game 1. Nowitzki has learned how to play through the pounding and has three scorers around him waiting to capitalize if the Blazers do give in and start bringing double-teams: Nash, Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley, who's gaining strength after his own injury layoff.
Resting Baron Davis for a game, and then bringing him back for Saturday's Game 3 at home, is the Hornets' preference entering Wednesday's Game 2. Especially because the Hornets know they can win, even on the road, with their big lineup. Unless Davis' knee got worlds better overnight, New Orleans will simply ask George Lynch to start against his old team and put the ball in Jamal Mashburn's hands. With Mash as Emergency Point Forward, New Orleans used its big lineup -- Mash, Lynch, David Wesley, P.J. Brown and Jamaal Magliore -- to win eight straight games in February, seven after the All-Star break. Wesley and Stacey Augmon will continue to split primary defensive duties against Allen Iverson.
WHAT A SCOUT SAYS
Throughout the playoffs, various scouts and coaches will contribute their playoff observations. Here's what one scout says about ...
"People have asked me all year what I think the difference in the Wolves is this season and I always say it's Hudson. I know Kevin Garnett is having an MVP-type season, and Wally Szczerbiak has had his moments, but no one expected Hudson to play like this. Even before last night, there have been lots of games where he'll just go off for a quarter and score a bunch of points. His confidence is sky-high. He isn't a pure point guard per se -- he's not Terrell Brandon, making great decisions with the ball -- but I'd say he's never been this confident in his shot before."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.