LOS ANGELES (AP)—Though Kevin Garnett hasn’t interest in entering politics, his coach believes it might be time for the NBA’s MVP to start campaigning for a fair deal from the referees.
A day after the Timberwolves fell behind 2-1 in the Western Conference finals to the public-relations dynamo known as the Los Angeles Lakers, Flip Saunders took a page from Phil Jackson’s coaching manual and demanded more respect for Garnett, who took just four free throws while fouling out of Minnesota’s 100-89 loss.
“I thought there were some cheap fouls called on him, and I still think that for a guy of his caliber, he should be going to the line more than four times,” Saunders said Wednesday after the Timberwolves’ practice on the Loyola Marymount campus.
“Sometimes you can have too much respect for the officials. I know it’s not in Kevin’s nature to complain, but the reason people complain is that it works, unfortunately. That’s something that’s disappointing. You want to believe it’s about basketball, but (the officials) are all human beings. They get caught up in it, too.”
In the Timberwolves’ first trip to the conference finals, Saunders has learned the squeakiest wheel usually gets the grease. And nobody squeaks louder than the Lakers, who didn’t like the officiating in Game 2—or even in Game 3, when they shot 40 free throws in the second half and had a 36-19 foul advantage.
So with “an absolute must-win” Game 4—according to Garnett—coming up Thursday night, one of the NBA’s most easygoing coaches took to the campaign stump.
While breaking down his videotape of the Lakers’ victory, Saunders said he catalogued 33 instances “that were either fouls we didn’t deserve, or calls they deserved that weren’t made. Something has got to change.”
Except for Sam Cassell, the vociferous point guard who’s usually kept out of trouble by Latrell Sprewell, the Timberwolves aren’t known for excessive lobbying. Garnett avoids even speaking to officials, preferring to believe “pure basketball,” in his words, would always win out.
Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that some of the NBA’s greatest champions of recent years—Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal, for instance—were among the loudest whiners as well.
But Garnett still isn’t ready to throw his hat in the ring. He deflected most questions about the officiating Wednesday before finally shooing away reporters he thought were trying to stir the pot.
“What is this, referee day?” Garnett asked. “You all trying to get me fined? Did David Stern send you out here to ask these questions? Take these cameras and go talk to the refs.
“I don’t understand where it’s going to get me,” Garnett added. “That’s part of the game, contact. I’ve got to be aggressive, and that’s when there’s contact. I can’t be sitting there trying to have a conversation with a referee when Karl Malone is sprinting down the floor. That’s not me. I play the game. I’m not going to lean on the refs to win this series.”
Garnett already is a star, but this high-profile playoff series is his biggest appearance on a national media stage. The games are drawing record cable television ratings from fans who rarely see the Timberwolves during the regular season, and Garnett is featured on the cover of this week’s “Sports Illustrated.”
But Garnett has been out of his offensive flow in the first and third games of the series. Though he had 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in Game 3, he went 16 1/2 minutes between field goals in the second half.
And Garnett has been particularly serious ever since Minnesota earned the West’s top seed, clearly sensing the burden on his shoulders. Signing the biggest contract in league history was nothing compared to the pressure he’s feeling now.
“I take a lot and I try to endure a lot, knowing that how I go is sometimes how we go,” Garnett said. “It’s no different from what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here. I don’t try to play mind games with myself. I understand that I have to come out with a certain amount of energy and be aggressive, set the tone, and that doesn’t change.”
Saunders even saw lapses in officiating during the Timberwolves’ attempt at a Hack-a-Shaq defense in the fourth quarter, claiming a few fouls weren’t called when Minnesota was trying to foul O’Neal on purpose. Shaq went 8-for-22 from the free throw line, but the Timberwolves never got closer than five points in the fourth quarter.
Such declarations are the stock in trade of Jackson, who has made the media into his personal marionette on his way to nine championships, including three with the Lakers.
After pressing for more calls before Game 3, Jackson kept a low profile Wednesday at the Lakers’ training complex in El Segundo.
“I think sometimes, circumstances take you into fouls,” Jackson said. “There were situations where he had to go out and help out on Shaq a couple of times. I think the offensive fouls were the ones that changed it up for him.”
When asked if he was surprised by Saunders’ lobbying efforts, Jackson smiled and said: “Not at all. You can’t blame him for that.”