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03-09-2004, 02:38 PM
Can Ainge save the Celtics from himself?

Let's get this out of the way at the start: I like Danny Ainge. A lot.

I loved him as a basketball player. I thought he was an excellent head coach. And I always enjoyed his analysis as commentator on TNT.

He's also a guy who quit a high-paying job a few years ago to be with his family. In my book, it was the most important thing he's ever done with his life.

The worst thing Ainge has done? Come out of retirement to take a wrecking ball to the Celtics.

Celtics fans have their doubts that Danny Ainge's rebuilding plan will net positive results.
Now here's the kicker. I don't disagree with what Ainge has done in Boston in theory. Ainge cited four big reasons why he decided to demolish the leprechauns within minutes of arriving in Boston.

He believed the Celtics were fundamentally flawed and did not have a real chance at an NBA Championship.

The team was in terrible salary-cap shape and he had limited flexibility to make the lateral moves necessary to make the team better.

He did not like the style of basketball the Celtics played. They were boring.

He hated one of their core players, Antoine Walker, and didn't want him on the team. Period.
It's tough to argue with any of Ainge's points here. He's right, the Celtics weren't a championship team and minor tinkering wasn't going to turn them into one. The Celtics did have a boatload of bad contracts left from the Rick Pitino/Chris Wallace era. The Celtics' style of play was boring. Watching traffic just outside the Fleet Center was more exciting. And Walker was making too much money and shooting too many 3s.

Something had to be done. Ainge's decision to trade Walker wasn't a bad one. It's what he got in return that made no sense.

What's Wrong?
So what's wrong with the Celtics? Two things are troubling Boston fans these days.

One, Ainge's execution of a sound plan left something to be desired.

Last year's draft produced two first-round picks, Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins, who have only played sparingly. Even after the Celtics looked cooked and Ainge pushed interim head coach John Carroll to play the young guys, Banks and Perkins aren't seeing any meaningful time. Banks has already had several run-ins with the coaching staff and Perkins is just too raw to see minutes any time soon. Only second-round pick Brandon Hunter has made a meaningful contribution.

After the draft, Ainge moved Walker, claiming that he didn't want the franchise to be on the hook for a major contract extension, but then turned around and took on Raef LaFrentz's deal, which has five more years and roughly $50 million left.

Jiri Welsch
Boston Celtics

63 9.3 3.5 2.3 .442 .742

In Ainge's defense, LaFrentz was considered one of the league's most promising young big men before he got shipped to Dallas. He was a terrible fit on the Mavs and should be, if he ever gets healthy, a decent big man in the East. Ainge also walked away with Jiri Welsch, a top-notch prospect with a real future in Boston and an extra $4 million in cap room.

His other big deal -- Eric Williams, Kedrick Brown and Tony Battie for Ricky Davis, Yogi Stewart and Chris Mihm -- cost the Celtics coach Jim O'Brien. I don't care how special you think Davis can be, the loss of O'Brien wasn't worth it. Williams and Battie served as locker room glue. Davis has a history of being acid. The Celtics got marginally better offensively, but lost a lot defensively in the deal. The fact that they lost all of the cap room that they saved in the Walker deal will come back to haunt Ainge.

Ainge has been most maligned because of the the trade deadline deal that sent another $6 million in cap room to the Pistons for back-up point guard Chucky Atkins. Not only is Atkins overpaid, but the move appeared to undercut one of Ainge's stated goals, getting rookies like Banks more playing time. Atkins, a veteran with no long-term future in Boston, was inserted in the starting lineup and the Celtics did start winning.

As it stands now, the team has a fighting chance for the eight seed in the East. Even that may not be a good thing. The Celtics stand to lose four to six draft spots if they make it into the playoffs. The draft isn't that deep and the difference between the ninth pick and the 15th pick could be huge on draft night.

The other mistake Ainge made was potentially more serious. It appears that he misjudged the fans' willingness to go through another painful rebuilding process. The Celtics had just emerged from one of the most disastrous stretches in franchise history. The team went six seasons without a playoff appearance before O'Brien improbably lead the team to surprising Eastern Conference Finals run in 2002.

For the first time ever, the Fleet Center was rocking. Fans loved the team and were grateful for a modicum of success after a six-year drought. From the numerous people in Boston who I've talked to, Ainge seriously underestimated the backlash involved with willingly pushing the Celtics back into the lottery. Fans seemed to understand that the Celtics' chances of winning a championship with the current team were slim, but they wanted to see a winner for a few more years before demolishing the team.

Needless to say the venom spewn in Ainge's direction has been endless. "Fire Danny" chants ring through the rafters. Ainge's peers are scratching their heads as he tears down what's left of the Celtics. Through it all, Ainge has remained confident.

He knows what he wants. He has a plan to get the Celtics there. He's willing to be patient and see it through. His biggest issue? Can he get the fans to see it through with him? Attendance is down (the Warriors now draw more than the Celtics). Pessimism is up. A five-game winning streak has done little to pacify anyone.

Can Danny fix the mess he seemingly created?

Celtics' Summer Blueprint
The Celtics head into the summer with some serious issues yet to be resolved.

If an arbitrator rules that the Celtics wrongfully terminated Vin Baker's contract, the team will be in financial hot water again this summer. Taking on the long-term contracts of Davis, Stewart and Atkins will come back to haunt the team and Ainge will be seriously handcuffed to make a deal that has any real impact on the team. If an arbitrator does rule in the Celtics' favor, the team suddenly clears $14.6 million off the books, giving it plenty of financial freedom to make a few changes over the summer.

Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues it's summer blueprint series.

DRAFT: The Celtics currently hold three first-round picks this summer. They have their own, the Mavericks' and the Pistons' first-rounders. If the draft were held today, the team would own the 16th, 23rd and 27th picks.

The Celtics' own pick is the most important. If they make the playoffs, the lowest they can draft is 15th. If the Cavs and Heat pass them for the eighth spot, they'll likely have the No. 9 pick in the draft. That's a major change of circumstances. With such gridlock at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, a nice losing streak to end the season could easily get the Celtics as high as the No. 6 or No. 7 pick in the draft. That's a huge spread in any draft.

Ainge claims to like the draft and so do I. But it comes with a major, major caveat. There are very few impact players in this draft. Most of the best prospects are playing high school ball or are young 7-footers playing overseas. Few of them will be ready to contribute in a meaningful fashion for another two or three seasons. That doesn't bode well for the rebuilding process.

The strategy for the Celtics? Take one safe college pick and use the other two picks to try and nab an international and/or high school project with more upside. The team's biggest need is at the four and five, so expect the Celtics to go big whenever they can.

Among the big men who could possibly be available in the 9-27 range? Pavel Podkolzine (7-5, Russia), Martynas Andriuskevicius (7-3, Lithuania), Hakim Warrick (6-9, Syracuse), Ivan Chiriaev (7-1, Russia), Marvin Williams (6-9, Bremerton, WA), LaMarcus Aldridge (6-11, Dallas, TX), Damir Omerhodzic (6-11, Croatia), David Harrison (7-0, Colorado), Rafael Arajujo (6-11, BYU), and Ha Seung Jin (7-3, Korea).

That's actually a lot of big men for any one draft. But of the group, only one, Warrick, expects to make an impact in right away.

Mark Blount
Boston Celtics

64 9.3 6.3 1.0 .550 .717

FREE AGENCY: This is where things get tricky for the Celtics. Center Mark Blount is an unrestricted free agent. The Celtics do not have his Bird Rights, meaning that if they want to re-sign him (they say they do) they'll have to dig into their mid-level salary exception to get it done. Blount is going to command some money on the open market, meaning that to re-sign him, the Celtics would likely have to spend most, if not all, of their exception to keep him around.

The team also has to decide what to do with Chris Mihm, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. He's not expected to command a huge salary on the open market, which could make him pretty affordable to re-sign.

If the team decides, instead, to let Blount go, then it'll have its full mid-level exception to work with. Ainge should be allowed to use it this year, but if the Celtics are forced to eat Baker's salary, it could cause some hand wringing among management. The Celtics payroll should come in at just around $45 million this summer (right at the cap) if Baker comes off the books. That number swells to $59 million (a few million over the luxury-tax threshold) if they're forced to pay Baker.

Who else will be available in the mid-level exception range who could interest the Celtics? Realistically, their best shot will be with a veteran player like Antonio McDyess, Zeljko Rebraca or a young big like Etan Thomas or Slava Medvedenko.

TRADES: The rumor out of Boston was that Ainge was attempting to move Ricky Davis before the trade deadline. If he could package him with Stewart (who is in the last year of his contract), Ainge may be able to get something decent back in return.

The other alternative is to try to trade Paul Pierce. The team has very decent options already at the two and three with Welsch and Davis. If Ainge could magically turn Pierce into a young four or five, he'd have to consider it. Most teams won't ever trade big for small, but Pierce is a special player and could convince the right GM to give up a big in return.

COACHING STAFF: John Carroll is a dead man walking. Ainge will try to find a coach who fits the style of play he wants his Celtics to play -- fast and furious. There has been a lot of speculation that Ainge ultimately will look in the mirror and find the next head coach of the Celtics, but he denies that so far.

There's a lot of buzz around former Sonics' coach Paul Westphal right now with several folks inside the Celtics claiming he's a front-runner for the job. Other coaches who have been mentioned include former Celtics Dave Cowens and Dennis Johnson

Around the League

Walker pouting in Big D: Speaking of former Celtics forward Antoine Walker, he's not too happy with his new digs in Dallas. After a promising start on the Mavericks, Walker has been ice cold lately and coach Don Nelson has responded by keeping Walker on the bench for long stretches. Walker played just 18 minutes Monday night in a victory over the Suns and let his emotions spill out after the game.
Antoine Walker
Dallas Mavericks

63 14.9 8.6 4.9 .417 .542

"It's the first time I've dealt with this in my career," Walker told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "I've never played 18 minutes in my life. It's hard for me to adjust to it. It's kind of late in the season, so I'm just going to have to deal with it. My goal has to be to try to keep focused and help this team win. It's tough, man. I'm trying to grind through it."

Nelson was pretty harsh in his assessment of Walker's play of late. "He'll play his way out of this," Nelson said. "He gives me no choice. I have to do something for his good, for my good, for the team's good. He's in a slump right now and when a guy is in a slump, you try to encourage him to come out of it, and you don't play him as much until he works his way out of it. Hard work will get him out of it.

"We can't fool around with 20 games left. We're jockeying for position here. It's really the same with anybody, he just happens to be the guy that hasn't been playing the last few games, so I don't want to blow a game because of it. Other guys are playing very well."

It's tough to argue with Nelson's logic. Walker has the worst off-the-court plus/minus rating on the team. The Mavericks outscore their opponents by a whopping 10.1 ppg when Walker is on the bench. He's averaging just 7.8 ppg on 27 percent shooting over his last five games.

Jazz have no shot with Kobe: Kobe Bryant may consider the Suns, Clippers, Spurs and even the Nuggets when he hits the free-agent market this summer. But don't expect him to give any love to the Jazz. Bryant said he was turned off by how the franchise has treated Karl Malone since the Mailman left Salt Lake for L.A.
"That's not loyalty," Bryant told the Salt Lake Tribune. "They've been really unfair. Karl was here for 18 years, worked hard, put his heart into this organization. For them to let him go someplace else the following year, that [stuff]'s kind of dicey. To do that to a guy, that's not consistent."

Bryant also wasn't happy that he was the butt of a joke during a skit when the Lakers visited in January. Bryant said he was offended by the skit. "I was more concerned about Karl, not so much what they said about me," Bryant said. "How they're treating him -- that's his old team, and they do that?"

Tanking Watch: Of course, no one intentionally tanks the season. But take a look at what teams like the Bulls are deciding to do and it has the same practical effect. Coach Scott Skiles announced on Monday that the team would begin playing undrafted rookies ahead of veterans like Marcus Fizer and Eddie Robinson.
Skiles, however, claimed that winning, not tanking, was behind the move.

"Did [Fizer, Robinson and Blount] account for a lot of wins over the past two or three years that I'm not aware of?" Skiles told the Chicago Tribune. "Nothing against those guys, but any pro team has to get proactive. We can't just say, 'Someday, we're going to win.' We've got to make moves to try to get wins. So we're looking at all our options right now to do whatever we can do to win."

GM John Paxson agreed. "There's value in wanting guys to adhere to a belief that we have as an organization -- that is to work, to do the things that we ask," Paxson said. "I guess you can make a case that maybe some more talented basketball players are sitting right now. But that's not always the be-all and end-all. Scott and I aren't going to back down from how we feel this game should be approached. That's the bottom line."

According to a Tribune report, that could ultimately lead to Fizer being waived this week to make room for another free agent, former Lakers point guard Jannero Pargo. If Fizer is waived, he'll be ineligible to make a playoff roster because he was waived after the March 1st deadline.

Tanking Watch, Part II: The Warriors aren't going anywhere either, which has prompted coach Eric Musselman to finally give some playing time to rookie Mickael Pietrus.
"He's a something-is-going-to-happen-out-there kind of player," Musselman told the San Francisco Chronicle. Pietrus tied a season high of 23 minutes on Sunday and, despite some shaky offensive numbers, is drawing raves for his on the ball defense. Musselman is using Pietrus to guard three positions on the floor and has endeared himself to his coach with his gritty play.

"That's where I feel I can most help the team," Pietrus said. "I have the (mind-set) that I'm not going to let anyone score on me, because then I wouldn't be doing my job right."

The Good, the Bad, the Kitchen Sink

Just realized that the Indiana Pacers could lose their last 19 games and still be the third-seeded team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Good

Rasho Nesterovic, San Antonio Spurs
Week's work: 3-1 record, 16.2 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 3 apg, 1.3 spg, 3.7 bpg, 60.3% shooting
Tim Duncan . . . who? And it doesn't really matter that the four centers Rasho faced this week were Jake Voskuhl, Scott Williams, Vitaly Potapenko and Lorenzen Wright because it wasn't that long ago that we would have included his name in that very same bunch and went on to the next paragraph. Now, he's the headline. So forget the fact that he got to the free-throw line only four times in four games. The fact is, the Spurs were looking at falling to the fifth seed in the playoffs when Duncan went down and now they're closer to second.

Stephon Marbury, New York Knicks
Week's work: 3-0 record, 31.6 ppg, 4 rpg, 10.6 apg, 2.3 spg, 53.7% shooting
Jason Kidd is leading the league at 9.4 assists per game as a New Jersey Net. Stephon Marbury is now averaging 9.5 assists per game as a New York Knick.

Lamar Odom, Miami Heat
Week's work: 2-1 record, 23 ppg, 13.3 rpg, 7.6 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.6 bpg, 46.9% shooting
A lot of guys can shoot 24 times in a game and dominate. Only a handful can shoot 10 times in a game and dominate. Even fewer can do both in the same week. Here's one of them with a triple-double this week for style points.

Carlos Boozer, Cleveland Cavaliers
Week's work: 3-1 record, 16 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.2 bpg, 52.8% shooting
Not everyone can be the No. 1 pick right out of high school with a two comma shoe deal or the 7-foot-3 foreigner making $13.5 million this season. But for a team to win 17 games one year and then be playoff qualified in March the next year, some nights you need your best player to be the 34th pick of the draft yet to make his first million in the NBA.

Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana Pacers
Week's work: 4-0 record, 23 ppg, 11 rpg, 2.3 apg, 0.2 spg, 2.5 bpg, 41.7% shooting
The Nets had the run. The Pistons made the trade. And all the Pacers have done is go 4-0 on the road last week across the West with an average margin of victory of eight to finish with the best record in the entire league as voters try to figure out how they can possibly keep this guy off the All-NBA first team with guys like Shaq, Duncan and KG sporting inferior records.

The Bad
Antoine Walker, Dallas Mavericks
Weak work: 1-3 record, 8.2 ppg, 5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 0.2 spg, 0 bpg, 28.2% shooting
I know he's not a good defender (only 2 blocks in his last 8 games), but I thought he could at least shoot the ball (6-for-13 from the free-throw line in last four games) and was for dang sure that the Mavericks traded for him because he could pass (10 assists last week to go along with 9 turnovers). By the way, Jiri Welsh hits a 3-pointer every 28 minutes and is now shooting 41 percent from long range for Boston as Walker sits at 27 percent in Dallas while making a 3-pointer every 30 minutes.

Kyle Korver, Philadelphia 76ers
Weak work: 1-2 record, 2.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0 spg, 0 bpg, 21.4% shooting
The Sixers could care less if he doesn't rebound, doesn't pass, doesn't play a lick of defense. He gets a locker and a shower before and after every game and a check at the end of the week because he can shoot the 3. And up until now, he's been hitting them at a higher rate than even Peja Stojakovic, ranking No. 1 in the NBA in triples per 48 minutes at 4.72. But last week in a knock down drag out with the Kings, Korver went 0-for-8 from the field and 0-for-6 from long range as the Sixers lost by nine and the Kings hit 9 of 17 from distance to the Sixers' 3 of 11. That was on Thursday and Kyle hasn't made a basket since.

Nene Hilario, Denver Nuggets
Weak work: 0-3 record, 8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.6 apg, 2.6 spg, 0.6 bpg, 38.8% shooting
If you're going to play 33 minutes a game and insist that you be called by a single name as your team loses eight of its last nine games, then you've got to be putting up better numbers than the 14 personal fouls you committed last week or we'll be forced to dig up your middle name and start hyphenating in your mother's maiden.

The Ugly

After holding the Nuggets to only 66 points on Saturday without a single Denver player scoring more than eight points, the Pistons did it again the following day against the Sonics, holding Seattle to only 65 points.

With Ray Allen injured, the Sonics had only one player in their starting lineup who could manage double digits. Take away Rashard Lewis' 16 points and the four other Sonic starters combined for only 10. Flip Murray, Antonio Daniels, Reggie Evans and Vitaly Potapenko shot 4-for-15 from the field that night and went to the free-throw line a grand total of two times.

The Kitchen Sink

That isn't the new and improved Rasheed Wallace snatching that alley oop lob pass from the top of your SportsCenter highlight clip for another dunk. It's, actually, the same old one spotting up from beyond the 3-point arc who you don't get to see because he just missed it.

In his first five seasons as an NBA player, Wallace averaged 0.7 3-pointers per game and was well on his way to becoming one of the premier low-post players in the league with a turnaround baseline jumper that Tim Duncan would envy. But the very next year, he attempted 162 triples in a single season. The year after that, he took 317. By 2003, he was averaging 4.1 3-point attempts per game and the Portland Trail Blazers couldn't get rid of him and his technical fouls quick enough. In his final 45 games in Portland, he averaged only 11 two-point attempts per game.

Then he was traded to Detroit, and in his first six games, he took only 13 3-pointers fitting in to his new red, white and blue uniform. But then came March, and in the last four games, he's taken 22 3-pointers. That's more than seven a game. And he's made only five of them.

Of course, you haven't seen this because the Pistons have won three of those four games and, not so coincidently, because they've played against the Jazz, Blazers, Nuggets and Sonics, the four teams fighting for that last playoff spot in the West. But the fact is, in those four games, 'Sheed is, again, averaging only 11 two-point attempts per contest and has been to the free-throw line only four times in the last three games.

Hubie Brown panic? Come on. On Feb. 17, Grizzlies starting guard Mike Miller went down with an injury and the Grizzlies, who had won six of their seven games at that point, simply plugged in Bonzi Wells into the starting lineup and have gone 8-2 since with Wells averaging 15.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals in his last 10 games on 49.2 percent shooting. Memphis is now 39-24 and only a half a game behind the Mavs for the fifth seed in the West.

It may be only three games, but Chris Webber is shooting a career-high 80 percent from the free-throw line after shooting 60 percent last season. But that shouldn't surprise anyone. Back in 1999, Webber shot a horrible 45 percent from the line before turning it around in 2000 by shooting 75 percent.

That wasn't Paul Pierce scoring 28 points and grabbing 21 rebounds against the Orlando Magic on March 1. And it wasn't Paul Pierce scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 25, the last game the Celtics would lose before winning their next six games and finding themselves right back in the playoff hunt.

That was, drum roll, please . . . Mark Blount, the second-round pick of the Seattle SuperSonics back in 1997 who was later cut, signed by the Yakima Sun Kings, then later signed on Jan. 22, 1999 and waived on Jan. 31, 1999 by the Los Angeles Clippers and eventually playing for the Celtics and Nuggets the last few years.

Prior to this season, he's never averaged more than 5.2 points a game in any particular season, never grabbed more than 4.6 rebounds a game and never played more than 20 minutes a game. But in the six games prior to the Celticsupset win over Minnesota on Sunday, the 7-0 center from Pittsburgh averaged 17.1 points and 11.5 rebounds on 58.6 percent shooting.

Of course, he went 0-for-5 for zero points on Sunday, but we never said he was Paul Pierce.

In his last nine games, Washington Wizard point guard Gilbert Arenas has made 30 of 56 3-point attempts for 53.5 percent. For his career, he shoots 35.7 percent.

The 2004 season started with the Lakers having four future Hall of Famers in their lineup, and when the opposing team wasn't triple-teaming Shaq, they were double-teaming Kobe or Karl Malone or Gary Payton.

And as a result, they were also watching Devean George hit wide open jump shots.

But with Shaq out or Kobe out or Karl out, opposing teams haven't had to leave George wide open and the small forward has suffered. After shooting 52 percent from the field through December, George went 40-for-126 in January (31.7%), then 28-for-95 in February (29.5%), and then 1-for-8 (12.5%) in the first two games of March.

Tracy McGrady is on pace to win his second scoring title in a row at 27.5 points per game, but it hasn't been easy. Or pretty. Last year, when he averaged 32.1 points per game, he went to the free-throw line an average of 9.6 times per game. This year, he's only going to the line 7.1 times per game. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that this year, 32.4 percent of his shots are from 3-point range compared to last year, when only 24.2 percent of his shots were from distance.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Last year: 23.3 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 3.9 apg, 0.6 spg, 2.9 bpg, 51% shooting

Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves
This year: 24.7 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 5 apg, 1.4 spg, 2.1 bpg, 49% shooting

San Antonio Spurs (42-21) versus Sacramento Kings (46-16)
Sunday, March 14, 2004 in Arco Arena at 3:30 p.m. PST on ABC

The Spurs could very well be on a six-game win streak sans Tim Duncan by the time they reach Sunday, but don't think for a second Rasho wants to face Chris Webber, Brad Miller and Vlade Divac all by his lonesome on this Sabbath.

The End
"President Bush called and said he's sending some reinforcements for Dallas, but I told him it's too late, it's over."

Kevin Garnett detonating words of mass destruction after the Timberwolves defeated the Mavs, 121-97, last Wednesday.

Peep Show

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki can't seem the hit a 3-pointer these days to save his life and his coach knows why. "He's not getting the same shots," coach Don Nelson said in the Dallas Morning News. "They [opponents] have played a small forward on him all year and that's going to have an effect on him being open. He's not getting the same looks." But Nowitzki doesn't expect it to last forever. "There was a stretch where I couldn't hit an open 15-footer," he said. "But these times pass."

Denver Nuggets: How big is big? "This is big," point guard Andre Miller said in the Rocky Mountain News. "This can make or break our season." Miller is referring to the first of three road trips the Nuggets will encounter this month. "We need these three this week," said Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. "First, we've got to go into Washington and get one, and then we'll go from there." From there means eight of their next 12 games are on the road with a fragile one-game lead on that eighth and final playoff spot. "We just need to gut it out and just keep getting better and growing and staying together," head coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. We're still holding on. We're still clinging on. We still have a hold of the eighth spot."

New Jersey Nets: The Nets don't play the Pistons until March 18. But don't tell that to Jason Kidd. "We understand where we are at in the sense of positioning in our division and conference," Kidd said in the N.Y. Daily News of their one-game lead on the Pistons for the second-best record in the East. "The game within the game is Detroit. If we can do what we can do and win ballgames, we want to have home court all the way through the first two rounds and then it is anybody's ballgame unless we can catch Indiana."

Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Garnett isn't talking. Latrell Sprewell isn't talking. So that leaves head coach Flip Saunders to explain Minnesota's latest losses. "It's a Catch-22," Saunders said in the Minnesota Star Tribune of his injured players returning . "Like with Michael [Olowokandi]. We could go the way we were going [with the rotation before Olowokandi returned], but we're not going to get to where we want to go that way. We've got to get him, Wally [Szczerbiak], Troy [Hudson] into the type of shape and rhythm they need to be in. There are going to be bad [games]. We have to look at that total picture. Hopefully, trying to get to where we're going is not going to jeopardize what we need to do as far as winning our division." But here's the downside. "We run an offensive play, and four guys are in the right spot, and the fifth guy doesn't finish his cut, or doesn't do what he's supposed to do, and the play breaks down," Saunders said. "In football it'd be like the line having four guys blocking and one guy doesn't block and the quarterback gets sacked. We're in that mode right now. That's what we worked on today, to make sure we changed that."

Orlando Magic: Stop the presses. Grant Hill isn't playing this year. "You weigh the benefit of playing a handful of games against the opportunity of just waiting until next year," Hill's attorney, Lon Babby, said in Florida Today. "So why not just wait until next year, and then you have March, April, May, June, July and August and part of September? That's an additional six months of rehab and healing. To us, it's a no-brainer. That's where everybody has come out on it at this point." That will make it 21 months since Hill last played in an NBA game. "I'm of the view that he's still going to play for a number of years," Babby said. "There's nothing else wrong with him. If his ankle holds up, there's nothing else that has reduced his ability to play the game. It's not like he's suffered structural damage that has made it harder for him to jump or do a crossover dribble. I'm sure he'll be rusty when he comes back, but I don't think his skills will have diminished."

03-09-2004, 05:12 PM

03-09-2004, 06:34 PM
Nelson was pretty harsh in his assessment of Walker's play of late. "He'll play his way out of this," Nelson said. "He gives me no choice. I have to do something for his good, for my good, for the team's good. He's in a slump right now and when a guy is in a slump, you try to encourage him to come out of it, and you don't play him as much until he works his way out of it. Hard work will get him out of it.

"We can't fool around with 20 games left. We're jockeying for position here. It's really the same with anybody, he just happens to be the guy that hasn't been playing the last few games, so I don't want to blow a game because of it. Other guys are playing very well."

Finally, Nelson woke up. Now it's time to make Jamison a starter.