LOS ANGELES -- Sam I Am is convinced.
Sam Cassell believed it before the game that ended Minnesota's season. His belief grew even as the final horn sounded, when he looked to his right and saw Kevin Garnett get a respectful consolation handshake from a Lakers fan named Jack Nicholson.
Sam I Am believed it most, though, after emerging from the visitors' training room at Staples Center, where he spent the first half-hour of his offseason locked inside with KG and Latrell Sprewell, commiserating in a three-man postmortem that no one else in Minnesota's traveling party dared to intrude on.
"It's difficult," Cassell said as he trudged to the team bus. "Because I know for a fact that if I [were] healthy, we'd be moving on to the next round. No doubt about it in my mind.
"That's easier said than done. But I know it, and I think if you're a true basketball fan, you know it would have been different."
As discussed previously in this cyberspace, the Wolves' epitaph in the wake of their first trip to the Western Conference finals should read: "Unlucky, but damn plucky." Even though common sense suggested they weren't going to beat a team that just beat San Antonio four straight times -- not without Cassell and Troy Hudson -- the Wolves didn't concede anything to the mighty Lakers.
Even Lakers coach Phil Jackson, perhaps remembering how much trouble Hudson alone caused them in the first round last spring, came away Monday night conceding that playing the Wolves sans Sam I Am was a priceless break.
Right up there, perhaps, with Derek Fisher's unforgettable Game 5 buzzer-beater in San Antonio and the "game of a career" -- in Jackson's words -- that L.A. got from Kareem Rush in Game 6 here to finally floor the Wolves.
"We had the good fortune of playing Minnesota without a full complement of their players," said Jackson, never known as the most modest of winners. "... We know it takes a lot of good luck to get [to the Finals], and we had it."
The Wolves won universal praise for refusing to bemoan their luck, Sam I Am aside. Even after Minny was beaten, you didn't hear a lot of what-if talk from the Wolves.
Cassell was really the only one in that frame of mind, but that's understandable. This was a seminal season for the 11-year veteran, at age 34, in which he finally earned an All-Star berth and became known, in some quarters, as the other MVP on a team that has the reigning MVP.
Yet, sadly, Cassell says that the only thing he can remember about this season now is "getting hurt in the Sacramento series." Cassell's hip injury is serious enough to require surgery, and he admitted Monday night that he really has no alternative.
Then he revealed a little story about Garnett persuading Sam I Am not to play, to prevent hurting himself worse.
"Kevin came to me after Game 1 and said, 'Hey, man, it's hurting me to tell you this, but sit down,' " Cassell recounted. "It takes a big guy to do something like that. I just feel sorry for Kevin and Spree out there, doing my job, bringing the ball up the court."
Cassell insists that KG and Spree share his view about what Minnesota might have achieved had the Wolves had their floor leader. While it's a bold leap to say the Lakers were that vulnerable -- who knows, they might have played harder throughout the series -- Cassell's absence was quite evident in the fourth quarter of the clincher. That's when Garnett collected three of his eight turnovers and the Wolves suffered their first playoff loss after holding a lead through three quarters.
"It's burning [Garnett] up right now, because he understands that with me out there, being healthy, there's no doubt in our mind we'd have moved on to the Finals," Cassell said. "Doesn't matter what this guy says or that guy says. I know for a fact the strong aspects I bring against the Lakers, things I can do successfully against the Lakers. I have to wait 'til next year, though."
But that's not all bad. The grit shown by the Wolves without Cassell and Hudson suggests they have decent depth and a good chemistry and a fine future & and that Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders were just as award-worthy a tandem as Memphis' Hubie Brown (the freshly minted Coach of the Year) and Jerry West (voted by his peers as Executive of the Year, ahead of McHale).
Cassell, meanwhile, feels revitalized ... apart from the pain in his hip and back.
"We've got something special here in Minnesota," Cassell said. "We're not done by no means."
Speaking about himself specifically, Cassell said: "When you get traded, you never leave in good circumstances. That's the business of the game. You can count 'em on your fingers, people who come into the league and stay with one team. A lot of people might need trades. I needed a trade. I needed to get out of Milwaukee. I needed to come here."
Even more than the Wolves needed Sam I Am in the conference finals.