SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—Kevin Garnett stretched his abilities to new dimensions in a game that extended into extra time—and on the morning after, he still looked awfully tired.
Garnett stretched and yawned as he ambled into Arco Arena on Tuesday, 12 hours after practically carrying the Minnesota Timberwolves through the tense final stages of a 114-113 overtime victory over the Sacramento Kings in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series.
The league MVP scored 15 of his 30 points after the third quarter in the first landmark playoff performance of his career. When Peja Stojakovic’s final shot fell short under tight defense from Trenton Hassell, the Timberwolves had a 2-1 series lead and a victory in one of the craziest games in either franchise’s history.
And with a morning practice coming up, nobody had a chance to enjoy it—or recover from it.
“It was a great game, but it’s only one game,” Garnett said. “When we get back out here (for practice), it doesn’t matter. … They feel like their backs are against the wall now, but at the same time, we came in here today like we lost that game. It’s back to work for us.”
As Garnett can attest, even the off-days aren’t relaxing in this series. The first three games featured ever-increasing levels of tension, climaxing in the nail-biting final minutes of Game 3.
Minnesota blew a 13-point lead with two minutes left in regulation, yet still escaped with a victory for the second straight game—and from Garnett’s big shots to Hassell’s clutch defense, the Timberwolves also picked up plenty of invaluable playoff experience in the process.
Game 4 is Wednesday night in Sacramento. With a victory, the Wolves would get a chance to close out the series at home Friday.
“We’ve just got to try to sustain what we did in Game 3,” Garnett said. “It’s not like one team is going to blow the other one out. We’ve both got too much firepower.”
The Kings still were steaming Tuesday over the no-call on the final play. Stojakovic made contact with Hassell as he aimed a 20-foot jumper, but no foul was whistled though the ball fell well short of the rim.
“That last play is atrocious,” Kings coach Rick Adelman said. “When you look at it from behind the basket (on tape), it’s incredible that they didn’t call a foul. If that wasn’t a foul, then I’ve got about 10 calls that happened early in the game that were called fouls that had 10 percent of the contact of that.”
“He jumped into me. I’m going to keep saying that,” Hassell said with a smile.
That play was the last of several instances suggesting the Timberwolves’ core is racing up the learning curve for playoff success. Most of the NBA’s title contenders over the last 20 years have needed several seasons of playoff failures before making a serious run, but Minnesota is halfway to the Western Conference finals in its first season as a unit.
Coach Flip Saunders’ favorite aspect of Game 3 was the Wolves’ ability to execute and win without Sam Cassell, who fouled out late in regulation. Cassell was Minnesota’s best player in the series’ first two games, but Garnett took charge when the All-Star point guard went to the bench.
“I just tell everybody, ‘Don’t be overzealous about anything we’ve done so far,”’ Cassell said. “The pressure is still on us. We’re still on the road. We’re only up 2-1. We can’t relax or get comfortable for a second.”
While the Timberwolves are gaining confidence and comfort with each tough win, Sacramento’s late-season desperation has only increased. The Kings won three tight games over the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, but they’ve fallen short in two straight close games against Minnesota.
And in the first 44 minutes of Game 3, the Kings seemed headed to a well-deserved blowout loss. They played tentative ball despite the sellout crowd’s enthusiasm, with Stojakovic and Mike Bibby missing shots and making several of Sacramento’s most glaring turnovers.
With a possible three games in the next five days, the Kings have no time for sulking or soul-searching. A victory in Game 4 would guarantee a return for Game 6 in Sacramento on Sunday.
“The series definitely hasn’t gone to format,” All-Star Brad Miller said. “That just hasn’t been the M.O. of our team all year. We’ve got to still beat them at home. We haven’t done that in the playoffs or the regular season.
“But, you know, it’s a must win.”