<
>

It's time to talk up the Timberwolves

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

It was finally time, very early Friday morning, to whisper this about the Minnesota Timberwolves:

For everything the Wolves don't have, after six empty trips to the first round, they've got quite a lot.

You had to whisper because it was almost 3 a.m. on the East Coast when it happened, but the Wolves, for starters, have justice. A series of phantom calls to rival anything seen in last spring's Lakers-Kings series could not stop Minnesota from beating L.A. in Game 3, on the Lakers' floor, and giving us a better opening-round series than the Wolves ever have before.

That's not all, though.

The Wolves have an unlikely 2-1 lead over the champs, after looking like sweep material in Game 1. They have all that despite losing Kevin Garnett a mere 12 seconds into overtime in Game 3, on one of those aforementioned ridiculous calls, meaning they had to go four minutes and 48 seconds without him and still won.

There's more still. We can think of about six more solid claims the Wolves can make, one for every first-round disappointment in Wolves history.

  • They have a 2-1 lead in the two-on-two tournament: Garnett and Troy Hudson have outscored Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in two straight games. The margin was 60-58 in Game 3, after Garnett and Hudson combined for 72 points in Game 2.

  • They have a previously unheralded lead guard who's trying to be the Mike Bibby of these playoffs. On his fourth team, and carrying a career playoff scoring average of 9.4 points into Game 2, Hudson has scored 37 and 27 points back-to-back, flowing into jumpers out of pick-and-rolls just like Bibby did last spring.

  • They have more of a supporting cast around Garnett than they ever get credit for, as we've been saying for weeks. Maybe these guys don't or can't do it every night, and maybe they won't do it again in these playoffs, but Garnett and Hudson don't beat the Lakers without Marc Jackson, Gary Trent and Anthony Peeler. In the OT, when the lesser-knowns were supposed to crumble, they were all huge.

  • They have, quite simply, one of the best coaches in the league. Flip Saunders has rallied the Wolves from their Game 1 pratfall and held them together when Garnett was reduced to a nervous cheerleader kneeling on a towel, and he keeps rattling the Lakers with his press and defensive swarms of Shaq and Kobe. Phil Jackson, meanwhile, keeps searching for someone who can stay with Garnett, because he is refusing -- like the Pistons with Tracy McGrady -- to commit double-teams to KG. The Zen Master, however, might have to give in to his fellow CBA alumnus, unless Devean George can guard Garnett for the bulk of a game.

  • They have the satisfaction of making a lot of prognisticators (hello!) look foolish, just by getting to 2-1 up, and you can't say for certain that the Wolves are done surprising us. These Lakers, after all, are prone to keep giving them chances.

  • The Wolves might even have clinched a favorable review from historians, no matter what happens in the rest of the series. Unless the Lakers awaken from 1-2 down with a three-win flourish -- and you can argue that L.A.'s 1-2 deficit is a lot more perilous than its 11-19 start -- it's hard to see how the long-suffering Garnett and his Wolves can get ripped after this one, whether or not they advance.

    That's how well the Wolves have played in their two wins.

    "A lot of other teams, they have something to show us every time they get the opportunity," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said before the series. "It's like an audition for our opponents every time we play. For us, when the (playoff) lights come on, then that's when we perform."

    Safe to say that the Wolves aced their audition early Friday morning. I'll still take the Lakers to get through to Round 2, but someone out there in Hollywood might want to whisper in their ears: Start performing, fellas.

    The Wolves have enough to beat them if the Lakers don't.

    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.