When being good isn't good enough

Updated: April 21, 2004, 5:19 PM ET
By Scott Howard-cooper | Special to ESPN.com

Latrell Sprewell
Will Sprewell, left, finish the season in another team's colors?
It was Timberwolves 106, Nuggets 92 on Sunday, and just as decisive a problem for Minnesota.

Fifty-eight wins in a regular season that delivered the championship of the NBA's toughest division in years, and all that does is cause trouble.

Kevin Garnett will soon be named MVP. Kevin McHale could be voted Executive of the Year by his peers. And Flip Saunders deserved Also Considered status for Coach of the Year, which was won by Hubie Brown. All of that doesn't help, either.

Somebody tell the Timberwolves to stop being so impressive at every level. They are ruining things for themselves. What they could be thinking by becoming legitimate contenders -- and that is exactly what has happened in a 2003-04 season that began with great possibilities and turned tangible in the last six months -- is anybody's guess.

Problem is, they've got people excited and believing and refusing to put a cap on potential for the first time ever, and that's the problem: being good isn't enough anymore.

Tell Minnesotans a year ago that the Timberwolves would survive the first round and fans would've celebrated an accomplishment. It would have been a milestone moment, the same step forward every franchise strives, only it would be appreciated more in some ways because of all the disappointment and dark moments that had come in previous years.

Tell them now?

Yeah, OK. Good start.

The predicament is the compliment, of course, because the Timberwolves did this to themselves with that tease of a regular season. They raised hopes. No, they military-pressed hopes to the ceiling.

It's the expectations game amid the playoff games. They know about this sort of thing in Wisconsin, not far away. The Bucks get to 41-41, work hard to recapture the passion of a city by going 27-14 at Bradley Center as hometown product Terry Porter delivers as a rookie coach, and at some point they will get mocked if Detroit's dominance lasts through the entire first round. A series loss to the Pistons is inevitable, and it's still worth keeping in close enough contact with reality to know that getting far enough to be embarrassed can sometimes be a positive in the big picture. Milwaukee will have closed the regular season by losing three in a row, five of 10 and, worst of all, valuable spots in the Eastern Conference standings and will lose in the playoffs, but it can't erase the success of overachieving that has come before.

They know about this sort of thing in Colorado, too. Not just because the Nuggets are playing the Timberwolves in the first round, but because no team demands a better grip on perspective. Denver went from 17 wins to 43 despite playing a new backcourt and a rookie small forward and somehow survived in the same obstacle course of the Midwest Division as Minnesota ... and some focus fell on the Nuggets faltering late in the season to waste a cushion for No. 8 in the West.

Minnesota, though, is different because the Timberwolves have a real chance to advance all the way from first-round fodder to very good in one season. They reached the playoffs each of the previous seven seasons and immediately lost their opening series, never getting closer than the 3-2 defeat in the second year with a 21-year-old Garnett that was supposed to signal their coming out. Instead, they became the NBA's favorite party guest, one who's good to have around and considerate enough to leave early without making much of a mess.

The next thing anybody knows, winning one series isn't good enough anymore. Blame it on McHale. Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Ervin Johnson came in trade and Trenton Hassell and Michael Olowokandi arrived as free agents. The injuries came, too, with Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Olowokandi, most notably, missing extended time, and still Minnesota established itself. That part is largely Saunders' and Garnett's fault.

It started with getting out of the first round. Then we were 9-8 and people were wondering if we would make the playoffs. And then we went on our run.
Flip Saunders, Wolves head coach
"It started with getting out of the first round," Saunders said. "Then we were 9-8 and people were wondering if we would make the playoffs. And then we went on our run."

Sprint, really. The Timberwolves won 28 of the next 35 games heading into the All-Star break and forgot the part about lowering expectations. In a race for the Midwest Division title and the best record in the West, they finished the regular season with nine consecutive victories and defended at a rate that would ease concerns about going for a title while packaging Johnson and Olowokandi at center.

The real potential comes because Minnesota does so many things right, unlike teams that can be locked down on defense but struggle to score (San Antonio, Detroit, Indiana) or can't stop anybody (Sacramento, Dallas). The Timberwolves? They finished second in shooting and fourth in shooting defense. They played without a dramatic presence at center and finished seventh in blocks. They got 29 games from the backup point guard, Hudson, and finished third in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"Guys understand we've got a chance," Cassell said. "That's the key right there. That you've got a chance. It's up to us to do something about it from there. But the important thing right now is that we've got an opportunity to do something special. And I'm not the kind of guy who's going to cheat myself."

Minnesota knows it can be very good. Of course, so does everyone else, and there go the Timberwolves, causing problems for themselves.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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