The 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the more underrated teams of their era, looking well on course to bring a championship to the city before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals that season. That appearance also stands as Minnesota’s last playoff showing, as the team has yet to make the postseason in the years since, and doesn’t figure to as it develops its young (but quite enviable) core in 2014-15.
Current Wolves coach Flip Saunders was the coach of that team as well, and he had to watch in frustration as Sam Cassell’s finest season as a pro ended with a hip problem that eventually forced the likes of Fred Hoiberg and even Kevin Garnett to walk the ball past half court against the Lakers. We’re not sure if Saunders is retroactively blaming the injury on Cassell’s famous “onions” dance, but in light of Kevin Martin’s recent fine for the same “infraction,” Saunders does still seem a little peeved.
Saunders takes a rather dim view of the gesture as well, but he has his reasons. According to Saunders, Cassell injured his hip doing that gesture that night, and was injured and ineffective in the conference finals, which the Wolves lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
“We lost a championship by that,” Saunders said. “When [Cassell] did that he had an avulsion fracture in his hip. … So, from that perspective, I’ve always been against that type of thing.”
You’ll recall …
(The music is really annoying, heads-up.)
Cassell recently spoke about the injury to Andy Greder at Wolves Now:
“That was a major setback because I knew for a fact that if I was healthy, we would have won a championship. We would have definitely won a championship that year. Detroit won it that year and they beat the Lakers, (the Wolves’ opponent in the Western Conference Finals). I knew for a fact – and just to play not even 38 minutes, but if I was healthy enough to play 30 minutes, we would have won a championship that year. I know in my heart. …
To those who are scoffing at the idea of “Timberwolves” and “championship” in the same sentence, get wise.
That was a killer team. The Western playoff bracket, as it is now, was rife with championship contenders, and the Timberwolves were the king of the lot. Kevin Garnett was at his peak, in the midst of an MVP season, Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were terrific game finishers, and Saunders’ touch on both ends made the Wolves nearly a top five club defensively and offensively. The team worked past both the rising Nuggets and championship-worthy Kings in the first two rounds before falling to an aging Lakers squad in the Conference finals. Even with Cassell and reserve point guard Troy Hudson out with injury, the Lakers still needed six games to down the Wolves.
Minnesota beat the Pistons twice in the regular season, with one of those games featuring Rasheed Wallace, by a grand total of two points. Unlike the ugly and one-sided eventual Lakers/Pistons Finals pairing, that championship round would have been one for the ages.
Did Cassell directly tear that muscle in his hip while doing that goofy dance? That’s tough to say, it wasn’t reported back then and it’s hard to see that move as being any more strenuous than leading your team’s offense while chasing around Mike Bibby on the other end. Cassell did attempt to play against the Lakers, and while he wasn’t completely limited (around ten points and three assists in 16 minutes a contest) he was clearly pained and half the player that he was just weeks before.
Cassell finally sat himself after Game 4 of the Lakers series. With Hudson injured, the little-used Darrick Martin was forced to start, and he shot 27 percent during his playoff run. Again, forwards Hoiberg and Garnett sometimes had to back the ball up the court in reserve. It was brutal to watch one of the league’s best (and most entertaining) teams have its wings clipped at the absolute worst time.
As stated above, the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since. We’re not sure if the Curse of the Cassell Dance is a real thing (actually, we’re pretty sure curses don’t exist), but we do know it was fun while it lasted. Those Timberwolves fell short of the ring, but that was a brilliant basketball team when healthy.
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