PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Game 1.
With the best supporting cast he’s ever had, Garnett begins his quest to advance past the opening round—and beyond—as the top-seeded Timberwolves face the Denver Nuggets.
Getting Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell during the offseason not only gave Garnett some sorely needed help at both ends of the floor, it also provided Minnesota with veterans who have had success in the playoffs.
The Timberwolves are looking to end a streak of seven straight first-round exits, having never won a playoff series in their 15-year history.
“Everyone talks about first round,” coach Flip Saunders said. “We’ve got 10 new guys. They don’t worry about that. Our goal is to win a championship.”
The additions of Cassell and Sprewell took pressure off Garnett, who came through with a season which many are saying will earn him league MVP honors for the first time. Winning that award, however, will mean nothing if Garnett doesn’t at least reach the second round.
“When you’ve got three guys that are willing to sacrifice their own for the sake of the team, then I know you can get some good things out of it,” said Garnett, who became the first player in 29 years to lead the NBA in total points and rebounds.
“You know how some things are shaky and then you have to fix them? We never went through that.”
While Garnett has never been through a long playoff run, the other two members of Minnesota’s ‘Big Three’ have. Cassell won two championships with Houston and went to the Eastern Conference finals with Milwaukee two years ago. Sprewell led New York to the NBA finals in 1999 and the conference finals the following year.
“If we play the right way, if we do the things we’ve done up to this point, I don’t see why we can’t advance,” Sprewell said. “We have a very good team, we have a great bench.”
Sprewell’s biggest responsibility in this series may be guarding Carmelo Anthony, the Rookie of the Year candidate who leads the Nuggets in scoring.
The 19-year-old forward is trying to help Denver pull off a stunning first-round upset, one year after leading Syracuse to its first national championship.
“My confidence is high, and I know my teammates’ confidence is high,” Anthony said. “We want to go out there and just play our normal basketball … and go see what happens.”
While Anthony and the Nuggets will try to push the tempo, the Timberwolves are likely to slow the game down and hope their superior defense is too much for their inexperienced and younger opponents to overcome.
Andre Miller will try to get Denver out on the break as the point man for Denver’s fast-paced offense, one which did not have much success against Minnesota this season. The Nuggets shot 36.3 percent from the field in four meetings, losing the first three before winning the most recent one on March 24.
“They’ve got a big monkey on their backs, having been out in the first round seven times,” Nuggets guard Jon Barry said. “Now they’re a No. 1 seed. I’m sure no one will give us a chance. So it looks like the red carpet is laid out for them to go ahead and get to the second round, and I kind of like that position. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
The series resumes Wednesday at the Target Center before going to Denver for Games 3 and 4.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Nuggets - 8th seed. Timberwolves - 1st seed.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Nuggets - Anthony, 21.0 ppg; Camby, 10.1 rpg; Miller, 6.1 apg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.2 ppg and 13.9 rpg; Cassell, 7.3 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Timberwolves, 3-1. Garnett averaged 25.3 points and 12.8 rebounds in the four meetings. Anthony scored 25 points in Denver’s only win, but averaged 12.3 in his team’s three losses and shot just 31.3 percent for the series. Denver had lost eight straight to Minnesota before winning 101-92 at the Pepsi Center on March 24.