PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Game 1.
That gives the league MVP and his Timberwolves the home-court advantage in their first trip to the conference semifinals as they face Webber and the Kings, coming off an encouraging first round after their late-season tumble.
Sacramento led the West for much of the regular season, but did not play as well once Webber returned in early March from offseason knee surgery. The Kings went 6-10 to close the regular season—including losses in eight of their last 12—to fall to the No. 4 seed.
That paved the way for the Timberwolves to grab the West’s best record, and they did just that by finishing with nine straight wins.
“The season is six months long, and for 5 1/2 months they were the best team in the league,” Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said.
One of Minnesota’s 10 home losses was to the Kings, but that came in overtime in early November and the Timberwolves won the final three meetings. Garnett was dominant in the season series with 26.8 points and 19.3 rebounds per game for Minnesota, the only team to win twice on Sacramento’s home court.
The Kings lost nine of their final 11 regular-season road games and went 21-20 away from Arco Arena, but split two games at Dallas in the opening round and won that series in five games.
“I always thought we were a lot better than the way we finished the season,” Kings forward Brad Miller said. “Hopefully we’ve worked out some of the things that were going wrong. Hopefully we’re just hitting our stride again.”
This is expected to be a high-scoring series with plenty of intriguing matchups, topped by Garnett against Webber.
Garnett, named league MVP on Monday after leading the NBA in total points and rebounds, is getting his first taste of playing in the second round of the playoffs. He had suffered an NBA-record seven consecutive opening-round exits with Minnesota before leading the team to a 4-1 series victory over Denver.
The offseason acquisitions of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell gave Garnett the best supporting cast he’s ever had, and the superstar forward has looked more motivated than ever. Among players left in the postseason, Garnett is the leading scorer and rebounder while ranking fifth in assists.
“I anticipate this being kind of a track-team kind of series where it’s really up in the air,” Garnett said. “We know this team can put up a lot of points. They’re really good at executing their offense.”
So are the Timberwolves.
Cassell and Sprewell did not disappoint in their Minnesota playoff debuts. They combined to average more than 40 points per game and hit better than 50 percent from 3-point range (24-of-45) in the first round.
Those two will be matched against a Sacramento backcourt also off to a terrific start in this postseason.
Mike Bibby is looking like the same player that led Sacramento to the brink of the NBA Finals two years ago, when he averaged 20.3 points and shot 42 percent from 3-point range. He averaged 23.6 points against Dallas, shooting 48 percent from the field and making 12 of his 23 3-point attempts.
With Bibby’s assist totals down a bit as he’s focused more on scoring, Doug Christie has stepped up in that area. He’s averaging 6.2 assists in the playoffs along with his 13.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Though Sacramento is without sixth man Bobby Jackson (abdominal strain) for this series, injuries may be a bigger problem for Minnesota.
Troy Hudson, who averaged 23.5 points in last year’s playoffs, is out for the postseason with a sprained ankle. Wally Szczerbiak cracked three bones in his back in Game 3 against Denver and is unlikely to return for this series.
Starting center Ervin Johnson fell on his wrist during Sunday’s practice and was sent for X-rays, but Saunders said he would play Tuesday. Johnson’s backups—Michael Olowokandi and Oliver Miller—both have been bothered by flu-like symptoms.
Minnesota may need all of its centers at full strength to handle Vlade Divac and Miller, both expected to have bigger roles in this series after seeing limited playing time against Dallas’ small lineups.
Divac played just 15 minutes a game as he averaged 5.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and less than one assist, atypical numbers for one of the NBA’s best passing centers. He had 19 points, eight boards and 10 assists in the Kings’ only win over Minnesota this season, but had little impact in their three losses.
Miller is rejuvenated after averaging 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the final two games against Dallas. He was bothered by a shoulder problem as he struggled through the first three contests.
“Some days Brad brings more than Vlade, but we can’t win (this series) without Vlade,” Webber said.
The Kings also need production from Peja Stojakovic, who was inconsistent in the first round and made just 10-of-35 3-pointers. He averaged 18.2 points— six fewer than his team-leading regular season total.
“They’re a very good team,” Sprewell said. “They have a lot of things they do well. Trying to take away any one thing is going to be difficult.”
The teams have a long wait until Game 2, set for Saturday in Minneapolis.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Kings - F Webber, F Stojakovic, C Divac, G Bibby, G Christie. Timberwolves - F Garnett, F Sprewell, C Johnson, G Cassell, G Trenton Hassell.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Kings - Bibby, 23.6 ppg; Webber, 9.2 rpg; Christie, 6.2 apg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 25.8 ppg, 14.8 rpg and 7.0 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Timberwolves, 3-1. In the first matchup at Sacramento on Dec. 8, Garnett made two 3-pointers in the final 26 seconds of regulation to force overtime in a 112-109 win. Webber had 21 points and 11 rebounds on April 8 in his only game against Minnesota, but Garnett had 24 and 17 while Cassell scored 29 points as the Timberwolves won 94-86 at Sacramento. Cassell and Sprewell accounted for 46.3 points and 12.0 assists per game. Miller averaged 20 points and eight boards in three games.