- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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He threw down a gutsy gauntlet that backfired. He later missed two huge free throws right after draining a tougher 3-pointer. He then boarded the team plane for the somber flight back to Minneapolis, only to learn upon landing that it was Tracy McGrady's Orlando Magic, instead of his Timberwolves, who are on the verge of exorcising their first-round bugaboo.
It wasn't quite a bloody Sunday for Kevin Garnett, but it wasn't the best. He boldly spoke of a 3-1 lead before the Wolves actually had it and wound up forcing us to consider another hypothetical when the Los Angeles Lakers made it 2-2.
The "if" in play beforehand came directly from Garnett, in a pregame interview with ABC. "... If we win this game," KG declared, "we feel like it is over."
"It" being the series.
Give him some gumption points for that, if nothing else, because that announcement of debatable wisdom has given way to Hypothetical No. 2. Now you wonder: If the Wolves lose the next two games ... or go up 3-2 and then lose the series ... or force a Game 7 by winning a Game 6 on the road, before losing the deciding game at home ...
Does Garnett get strafed again?
Losing this series, as you know, would stretch KG's Round 1 hex to a humbling 0-for-7. It was after the sixth straight early exit, in three straight games to Dallas last spring, that Garnett was roasted publicly for the first time, blamed for not halting the Wolves' drought after Dirk Nowitzki outscored him in the series by 28 points, 100-72.
Garnett is not alone in his suffering. Stephon Marbury, whose Phoenix Suns are tied 2-2 with mighty San Antonio, needed four seasons just to make the playoffs after leaving KG's side. Grant Hill and Antonio McDyess, like KG and Steph, have also never won a playoff series, and those guys might never play again.
Yet it's Garnett and McGrady who are known as the Best Players To Never See Round 2, and it's a club that's about to be cut in half. Averaging nearly 40 points in his series, and benefiting from residence in a conference where the top seed is a long shot to score 90, McGrady's Magic holds a 3-1 lead over Detroit. One more win and Orlando becomes just the fourth No. 8 seed to topple No. 1 since the 16-team format was introduced in 1983-84. T-Mac, along the way, has repeatedly alluded to KG and their shared plight.
"What he's been through, being bounced out, I know how tough it is and how frustrating it is on his part," McGrady said Sunday at his post-victory news conference. "Because you feel like you did everything you could on your part to advance and you failed."
There figures to be some sense of failure if the Wolves, as widely expected, are excused again, because they've never seemed closer to playoff success. Fact is, they were closer in 1998, when Minnesota held a 2-1 lead over Seattle with a potentially clinching Game 4 at home, but beating the Lakers would be infinitely bigger, since you have to rewind one millennium to find that last team that did so in the postseason.
Garnett will be rightfully bashed, even by himself, for missing the two free throws Sunday, after making his first seven and after rising up fearlessly to make that long 3-pointer moments before. There will inevitably be another crack or two, should the Wolves get bounced, about how Garnett wasn't on the floor in overtime when Minny claimed the biggest triumph (Game 3) in franchise history.
That's a pretty harsh view, though. The Wolves indeed squandered an opportunity to seize that treasured 3-1 lead, but Garnett is playing better than he ever has, making this series more competitive than anyone impartial envisioned. In spite of the errant frees, KG did score 11 points in the fourth quarter. He's averaging 30, 17 and six for the series ... far better than the regular-season numbers that are all but certain to make him runner-up to San Antonio's Tim Duncan in MVP voting.
Garnett is generally proving as difficult for the Lakers to deal with as Shaquille O'Neal is for the Wolves. Plus, these are still the defending champion Lakers, until someone dethrones them. They are thinner than they have been since the title run began, and they're also banged up -- Kobe Bryant's shoulder, Rick Fox's ankle -- but the Lakers still have Shaq and Bryant. Tough to bash Garnett for not toppling them if none of the other West heavies has, either.
Nothing has really changed. Garnett has never had a teammate from the Marbury class since Steph forced a trade elsewhere. And the Wolves remain handcuffed by his massive salary. They've never been favored in a series before and they weren't this time, either, even with home-court advantage for the first time. There will be renewed calls for the Wolves to trade him, assuming Minnesota can't recover from its lost chance to go up 3-1, with the same problem facing the franchise: Can the Wolves really get two stars, or one star and some pretty sure-fire prospects, in return for KG?
That's another hypothetical for another day, but let's be clear: Garnett has advanced himself, no matter how far the team goes. Whether you endorsed his pregame comments, or cringed, you admire his willingness to heap more pressure onto himself. Because, as McGrady explained: "When you're the key guy for your team and you lose, you are to blame for everything."
"You can't blame KG," one Eastern Conference coach countered Sunday night. "I don't see how you can blame him if they lose this series. He's stepping up and taking big shots -- and making big shots.
"Actually," the coach added, "go ahead and blame him. Then trade him to us."
By opening his big mouth, the Big Ticket may have punched his pass to the second round prematurely.