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Monday, April 28
 
Bold prediction brings more criticism to KG

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

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

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.

STEIN SIDELINES
MALE OF THE WEEKEND
Maurice CheeksMaurice Cheeks
No, not because he coached Portland to its first victory in 11 playoff games on Sunday. Not even because he finally committed minutes to Zach Randolph, who does things inside Rasheed Wallace simply won't and responded with 25 points and 15 boards in a Game 4 triumph over Dallas. It's because Cheeks helped out that young lady with the national anthem Friday night, in the sort of touching civic gesture the Blazers aren't exactly known for any more.

E-MAIL OF THE WEEKEND
Shaquille O'NealCan we truly consider Shaquille O'Neal one of the greatest centers of all time if he has never won a rebounding title?
Barry Brown
Philadelphia, Pa.

STEIN: You certainly can and I definitely do. Besides the three rings, Shaq has mobility and speed and other skills we've never, ever seen from a man his size. Fact is, we've pretty much never a seen a guy his size, a guy put together quite like Shaq is. I agree that he has no good excuse for never winning the rebounding title, because he only rebounds and defends when he really wants to, but what hurts him more in the eyes of some NBA historians is the absence of quality centers in his way. There were a few in Shaq's younger days (Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning) but top-shelf opposition in the pivot just hasn't been there since the Lakers started winning championships. Rik Smits, David Robinson, Arvydas Sabonis, Dikembe Mutombo and Vlade Divac -- none of them at their youthful best -- are the best centers O'Neal has faced during the Lakers' title run. That said, I can't find a prominent center from the past who downgrades what Shaq does now, without fearsome rivals. Bill Russell told me last year: "It's nice to have a rival, but I don't know if that's necessary. When Magic (Johnson) and Larry (Bird) were fighting each other, I don't think Magic got up and said, 'Well, I've got to do this tonight because Bird's out there.' "

Send Stein a question

SPEAK OF THE WEEKEND
"It crossed my mind. If it is, I'm a realist."
Cheeks, before a Game 4 victory over Dallas, acknowledging that the game might have been his last as Blazers coach had Portland lost.

STAT OF THE WEEKEND
0

That's how many first-round sweeps we're going to see in the first year the NBA is using the best-of-seven format as opposed to best-of-five. It's the first time, since the league went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84, that we're sweepless in Round 1.

STAT OF THE WEAK-END
0

That's how many road playoff games the Pistons have won with Rick Carlisle coaching, in six tries.

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."

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.

Lakers
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50-32

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Minnesota
Minnesota

51-31

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