Thanks in large part to new coach Kevin McHale, the Minnesota Timberwolves have their swagger back.
“We are playing with a lot more confidence,” Szczerbiak said. “There’s no question about that.”
Led by Szczerbiak, the Timberwolves’ bench players outscored Cleveland’s backups 55-6, which was enough to hold off Cleveland’s All-Star tandem of LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and give McHale his second straight win.
James had 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, but was helped to the locker room early in the fourth quarter while battling exhaustion from being ill. After getting fluids in the locker room, James returned to the court with just over 4 minutes to play and had to drop to his knees in the huddle during a timeout.
James did not address the media after the game and a Cavs spokesman said he was being treated for the flu.
“We didn’t know what was wrong with him,” Ilgauskas said. “So we were concerned at first. When he came back, it was a relief.”
Jeff McInnis did his best to fill in, hitting two big jumpers off drives to the basket that gave Cleveland an 81-79 lead with 4:30 to play.
The Timberwolves responded with an 11-2 run. Garnett hit a layup and jumper, Szczerbiak added a jumper of his own and Garnett was able to slither in for an offensive rebound off a missed free throw from Eddie Griffin that led to a 90-83 advantage with 1:27 to play.
James scored six more points after returning to the court, but Griffin sealed the win when he took a no-look pass from Garnett and made a reverse layup with 23 seconds to go.
“I bobbled the ball a little bit,” Garnett said. “I just looked down and saw his Nikes and I flicked it to him.”
Garnett was the only Wolves starter in double figures, but he had plenty of help.
Fred Hoiberg added 13 points and fellow reserve Griffin finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and four blocks to lead the balanced effort.
“Our bench just killed them,” Szczerbiak said.
Ilgauskas had 24 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, McInnis had 17 points and seven assists and Gooden added 12 points and 10 boards for Cleveland.
“Really good teams that go deep in the playoffs win games like that and we haven’t,” Ilgauskas said.
In McHale’s three games as coach, the Timberwolves are 2-1 and have started to display the hustle, determination and teamwork that were so integral to their run to the Western Conference finals last season.
“They’re playing a lot different,” McInnis said. “They are taking on McHale’s personality and playing a lot harder.”
During one exchange in the second quarter, the Timberwolves blocked two shots down low before Anthony Carter tipped away the loose ball, fought with Eric Snow to get to it first, then pushed it ahead to a streaking Hoiberg for an easy layup.
It was a huge step in the right direction for a Minnesota team that has so often been uninspiring during a disappointing first half of the season that ultimately resulted in longtime coach Flip Saunders’ firing.
“We fought hard,” McHale said. “We can go through some dry spells on offense when you’re kicking rear ends on defense. That’s the way you have to play.”
Since reluctantly taking over for his old college buddy, McHale has preached effort and pleaded for his players to contest shots and dominate the paint.
The message has definitely hit home.
Minnesota outrebounded Cleveland 47-37, blocked a season-high 14 shots and outscored the Cavs 36-30 in the paint.
“We were getting outplayed in a lot of games and most of it was because of effort,” Hoiberg said. “With Kevin here now, he’s not going to allow that to happen.”
Cleveland coach Paul Silas on James’ flirtation with the slam dunk contest: “If I had my druthers, he’d sit that one out, but it’s not up to me.” … Carter drained a 31-footer to beat the buzzer at the end of the first quarter. He then had a 57-foot heave rattle in and out at the end of the third. … The Timberwolves’ bench outscored their Cleveland counterparts 32-0 in the first half. … Ilgauskas got a technical at 10:04 of the fourth for pleading for a foul call.