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03-03-2003, 12:16 PM
Twenty-two games to go in the regular season. The pretenders are starting to fold. The contenders are just starting to warm up.

We could dwell on the negative: The "we don't get any respect" Pistons dropping seven in a row. The "I don't get any respect" Isiah Thomas-led Pacers losing six of their last seven. The "what will Jason think?" Eastern Conference champion Nets tripping up in four of their last five.
The "greatest team ever assembled" Rockets dumping six of their last nine. Or the "are we really that much better with Penny?" Suns dropping five of their last six.

We could focus on those things, but why dwell on the negative when there are five tasty darkhorses emerging from the masses?

The T-Wolves, Sixers, Magic, Warriors and Sonics were all left for dead at one point in the season. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, they're all poised to do something special this season.

Can KG finally get the Wolves out of the first round?

Six years. That's how long Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett has waited. Six years of sitting at home watching the second round of the NBA playoffs. Six years of humiliation as the Mavs, Spurs, Sonics, Blazers and Rockets took their turns putting the Wolves to sleep early. Six years of questions, whispers and allegations in the summer. Six years of doubt. Garnett claims the criticism doesn't sting. But his play in the month of February begs to differ.

KG and the Wolves are sizzling right now. The Wolves went 12-1 in February. Garnett averaged more than 28 points and 14 rebounds during the month and picked up an All-Star MVP trophy along the way. "It's too bad it's only 28 days," coach Flip Saunders said. "We could use a longer month." Indeed. If the Wolves want to make sure six first-round playoff exits don't become seven, they need to find a way to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Their 27-5 home record is the best in the West and second best in the NBA. The team has won 17 straight at the Target Center. There may not be a more amazing story in the NBA this season. For those of you who haven't pondered what Garnett and the T-Wolves are doing, factor in that their starting point guard, Terrell Brandon, has yet to play a game. Their second-best player, Wally Szczerbiak, has already missed 30 games. And the guy who cost them five first-round draft picks, Joe Smith, gets more face time on milk cartons than he does on the court.

Then remember that this team was 17-16 on Jan. 8. Since then, it has gone 23-5. With March now upon us, the Wolves are in pretty elite company. Only four teams in the NBA have at least 40 victories -- Dallas, Sacramento, San Antonio and Minnesota. Not too shabby. What's been the key to the T-Wolves' success? Start with Garnett. He ranks first on the team in scoring (23.1 ppg), rebounding (13.1 rpg), blocks (1.5 bpg) and steals (1.5 spg). He's second on the team in assists with 5.7 a game. He leads the league with 49 double-doubles and is widely considered the front-runner for the MVP award.

Now here's the kicker. A T-Wolves stat guru has pointed out that when Garnett is on the court, the Timberwolves score (on a 48-minute basis) 14.3 points more than when he's off the court. They also give up 10.1 fewer points than when he's on the court. Do a little math and his total differential 24.4. The other MVP contenders? Jason Kidd is the closest with a 13.0 point differential. Kobe Bryant (11.1), Tracy McGrady (10.7) and Tim Duncan (9.9) aren't even close.

"I can't say enough about him," the Knicks' Allan Houston told the Minneapolis Star Tribune after Sunday night's game. "This is the best he's played in his career, and everybody knows it. The thing that's so scary about him is, as good as he's been all these years, he's taken it to another level. That shows you not just how good he is but how focused he is on being the best he can be." The Wolves' role players, specifically Rasho Nesterovic and Troy Hudson, are also stepping up big time this season. Nesterovic is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks. He's gone from role player to center of the future in just over a year.

"Rasho and I are starting to get a good chemistry going," Garnett told the Star Tribune. "I think it's just that when you play together for a while, you start to figure some things and how to work with each other."
Hudson is also averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists. While he isn't the distributor that Brandon was, Garnett says he's a more vocal leader who's quietly fitting into his new role with the team. "One difference is, he'll speak up and say different things -- and get on you," Garnett told the Pioneer Press. "In the beginning, he thought he just had to score, or just try to run a couple plays and get the ball there. He's now like the orchestrator."

Garnett even has kind words for Joe Smith, despite the fact that he's played in only 36 games for the team this year. "If people say, 'Aww, they cheated and it was only Joe Smith,' you know what? He was worth it. ... Joe Smith does all the little things to win games for you. Charges, the little jump hooks, the put-backs and rebounds. Joe still is a beast under that board, and you've got to play him from 15 feet out." A love fest in Minny? Wasn't this the team that was almost torn apart last season by the well-publicized Garnett-Wally rift. Players say Garnett has toned down the criticism of his teammates and just let his play do the talking this year.

"When you share the ball and you're able to make the players on your team better, that sort of gets overshadowed, because everybody wants to see the top dog shooting the ball, taking the last shot," he said this week. "Nobody ever talks about making the right play or giving your teammates confidence or leading the team. That's the perspective I have, and I haven't come off it. My game speaks for itself." That's why it's not surprising that the affection is now going both ways. Even Szczerbiak is now on Garnett's bandwagon. "We're peaking at the right time," Szczerbiak told the Star Tribune. "I think key guys have really matured, and we're being led by KG. He's matured and become a big-time leader and the MVP of the league. I don't even have to say 'in my mind' -- I think he's the MVP in everyone else's mind, too."

Now for the tough stuff. The Wolves have a five-game road trip that begins Tuesday with games against the Sonics, Kings, Lakers, Suns and Mavs. The Wolves have struggled on the road this season, going just 13-16. Then their next three home games are against the Spurs, Lakers and Blazers. That's a brutal eight-game stretch that few teams would handle well. Szczerbiak, for one, isn't worried. "This road trip is going to be tough. We've been on a roll here at home, and the fans have been great. If we just continue to execute and play our game, we'll be fine."

Are the Sixers for real?

On Feb. 5, the Philadelphia 76ers were blown out at home by the Nets, 111-85, and seemed on the verge of slipping out of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Three weeks and nine straight victories later, the Sixers are pressing the Nets for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. What happened? "What we needed," Aaron McKie told the Philadelphia Daily News, "was just time to play together. Time to begin thinking as one. Time to get everybody on the same page. "A lot of times earlier in the season, we had spurts where we did that, but then we'd give it up at the end. You can't have three guys on the floor thinking one thing and two guys thinking another thing.

"Really, we needed time. Over time, things tend to get better. It's like the healing of a wound; it doesn't happen right away. We had so many new guys, so many injuries. Some teams can come out and be good right off the bat, but that wasn't the case with us." The team also needed Allen Iverson. Iverson, who seemed a step slow for most of the first half of the season, was on fire in February. He averaged 28.7 ppg and a season-high 5.9 apg. "Obviously, right now, offense is not our problem," Iverson said. "We need to play defense. The reason for winning the games the way we've been winning them is our attitude and approach in every game. We aren't worrying about the streak, [we're] just going out and playing."

The Sixers should get a huge boost in the defense department as early as today. Power forward Tyrone Hill, who was waived by the Cavs on Thursday, is expected to sign with the Sixers today. Hill decided to pass up more money in Dallas for a chance to take care of some "unfinished business" in Philly. With Todd MacCulloch out for possibly the season, the Sixers could use the some toughness in the paint. "I'm nervous about it," coach Larry Brown told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I really want him to be happy. With Todd's situation . . . it's tough for us. He'd be a huge fit. He knows us and he knows what we do." "I think Tyrone's going to be Tyrone," Eric Snow said Sunday morning. "He's going to play hard. He's going to rebound. He's going to defend. He's going to do all the dirty things that we know he can do. As far as getting into sync on offense, that'll come."

Hill's addition couldn't come at a better time. The Sixers are in the midst of a killer West Coast road swing. They defeated the Nuggets on Sunday but have to face the Kings, Blazers, Sonics and Lakers on the road this week. Next week they have to deal with the Pacers and Blazers at home and the Nets on the road. With such a brutal schedule, the Sixers' nine-game winning streak seems in serious jeopardy. "We just understand playing one game at a time," Iverson told the Daily News. "Once we start worrying about how close we are to teams, that's when things start happening [that are] negative. The positive thing I respect about us right now is that we are just approaching one game at a time. We're going out with five guys, playing against five guys...I don't care if we leave the gym with a one-point lead -- that's enough. Play sloppy, play good, I don't care. I just want the win. That's all."

Trades give boost to Magic, Sonics

It's way too early to start judging the two big trades that went down at the Feb. 20th trade deadline, but according to the early returns, it's pretty clear that the Magic and Sonics have come out smelling like roses. The Magic have gone 4-1 since they acquired Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek for Mike Miller and Ryan Humphrey. Gooden is averaging 18 ppg and 11.8 rpg while shooting 52 percent from the field since the trade. Giricek is averaging 17.2 ppg and 6 rpg on 48 percent shooting. The trade has lit a spark under Tracy McGrady. In the five games since the trade he's averaging 37.2 ppg and 8.8 apg.

Miller's played well for the Grizzlies in his debut, but a sore back has kept him out of the last few games. But even if Miller was playing at an all-star level, there's no way he could match the combined 35 ppg and 17.8 rpg the "Killer Gs" are averaging. "I don't know if it's the trade," McGrady told the Orlando Sentinel. "But we've been playing an up-tempo pace, playing with a lot of passion out there, and we're just believing now." McGrady, who was angry at the Magic when he first learned of the trade, has had a change of heart after watching the two rookies play.

"Both of the guys can play," McGrady said. "Drew gives us that low-post presence that we were lacking in the past. Also, he has given us the rebounding, and he can defend. Gordan gives us a lot of everything." The good news for the Magic is that they have a favorable schedule for the rest of the month. They play six games against some of the worst teams in the NBA -- Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Miami (twice) and Memphis. They also play 10 of their 14 remaining games in March at home.

The Sonics have experienced a similar surge since shipping Gary Payton and Desmond Mason for Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie and Ronald Murray. Milwaukee is 2-4 since the trade, while Allen, averaging 27.8 points, 7.8 assists and 7.4 rebounds, has been the catalyst for the Sonics' 4-1 surge. The key word in Seattle right now is "unselfishness." Allen has worked hard to get all of his teammates involved and his team is loving him for it. "Ray is a very confident and mature player. He knows his game, and his ability to create opportunities for others is great," coach Nate McMillan told the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "He makes decisions like a point guard, and he runs the whole floor."

Allen's unselfishness is benefiting everyone. The team has improved its shooting from 43.7 ppg to 46.7 ppg. The Sonics are also averaging eight more points per game since the trade. "Any time you move the ball, you are getting higher-percentage shots," Brent Barry told the Tacoma Tribune. "We are not struggling to score baskets because the type of shots we are taking are more than likely to go in." And while a few players are still trying to get over the shock of losing Payton, most seemed pleased with the results.

"It was a surprising move to me in the fact that Desmond (Mason) was a part of the deal, and that upset me a lot," Rashard Lewis told the Seattle Times. "But the trade has helped make us better, as Ray fits into the style of game we need to be playing. I hope it works out in the long run for us as well." Two weeks ago, the Sonics were counting pingpong balls. Now, the team is three and a half games out of the eighth playoff seed in the West. While a bunch of teams -- the Suns, Rockets and Warriors -- currently stand in the their way, they play 10 of their 14 games in March at home.

Does less Jamison equals more wins in Golden State?

Winning can drown out just about everything, including Antawn Jamison's whining. Who would've thought, six months ago, we would ever know how to do that. The Warriors have won five straight and theories are running rampant about how coach Eric Musselman is doing it. Without any significant offseason additions the Warriors have gone from the worst team in the league to a legitimate playoff contender. Is it Musselman's coaching? The emergence of young players like Gilbert Arenas, Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson? Or, does it have something to do with Musselman cracking down on Jamison?

Through the first 46 games, Jamison was averaging 41.1 mpg. Over the past 13 games, he's down to 33.7 mpg. The Warriors are 9-4 during that stretch. Is that just a coincidence? From the moment Musselman walked in the door his mantra has been, simply, if you produce you play. If you don't you sit. No one, with the exception of Jamison, has been immune from Musselman's wrath this season. However, over the last 13 games, Musselman has been holding Jamison to the same standard. As Chris Mills and rookie Mike Dunleavy have emerged, Jamison has seen his minutes dwindle when he doesn't play well. Even Antawn admits that the move has made a positive impact on the team.

"Everybody is kind of equal now," Jamison told the Contra Costa Times. "I remember being asked about when I said, 'Just give me 40 minutes a game and I'll produce,' and what if I wasn't playing 40 minutes. Well, whenever I'm called upon, I'll produce, whether I like it or not. It's me growing as a person. I know he's trying to help this team out, too." Jamison's reaction (in previous years he'd pout if he didn't get 40 minutes and 20 shots a game) is just more evidence that the Warriors are finally growing up. "Everyone is contributing now so he doesn't have to leave someone in when they're making mistakes," Arenas said. "It's like, one, two, three, everyone is yanked. Everyone. If the bench players come in and do the same thing, they get yanked, too. He's making sure he's got five players on the same page."

For young players like Richardson, it's just proof that Musselman refuses to play favorites. "It does help," Richardson said. "Now I don't feel like I'm the only one coming out because of my defense or whatever. He's (Musselman) done a better job of that. Earlier, I did think he was singling me out. But now, everyone will come out if they're not playing defense." Could this new attitude lead the Warriors to their first playoff berth since 1994? The Warriors are just two games behind the Suns for the eighth spot, but are facing a brutal stretch in March.

Nine of their next 16 games are on the road, and 10 come against teams .500 or above. Ten come in back-to-back sets. On their second road trip during the stretch, Golden State plays four games in five nights against Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia and New Jersey. "All this is great and we're really proud of the way we've played," Musselman told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but our month of March, as far as strength of schedule, is tough, if not the toughest in the league. . . . The schedule we have remaining would be difficult for the defending champions."

Are the Cavs trying to lose?

We've certainly taken our jabs at the lowly Cavs and their GM, Jim Paxson, this season, but we've never gone so far as to accuse them of intentionally losing games. But that's essentially what departing point guard Bimbo Coles did after he was finally released on Friday. "As much as they say they're not trying to lose games to be in the LeBron James race, it's obvious they're trying to lose games," Coles told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "And that shows they're not very loyal to the players, especially to the veterans that deserved better. If this was the direction they were going in from the beginning of the season, they should've made that clear to the veteran guys so we could've moved on. It was so unprofessional.

"If the Cavs get the first pick and choose LeBron, I wouldn't come if I were him. I'd hate for him to come to the Cavs because they'd screw him up." Coles claims that other players feel the same way, but they've been warned that they'll be fined by the team if they say anything negative about the franchise. "Gordon Gund held a meeting with the team shortly after John Lucas was fired and he told us that any player who says anything negative about the organization will get fined $5,000. There are plenty of players that feel the same way I do but they can't say anything because of the fine."

Coles isn't the only one who feels like the Cavs are giving up. Magic star Tracy McGrady accused the Cavs of doing the same thing in the Magic's 102-76 rout of the Cavs on Sunday night. "I know they quit," McGrady said of the Cavs. "Guys didn't want to play. Ricky Davis, he wasn't aggressive. He was too passive. Guys were passing up open jumpers. I mean, they just became a passive team. "A team like this, that has a record as bad as they have, if you come out and jump on them right away, they tend to fold. . . . It showed in that third quarter. We were making everything, defending and they lost faith in themselves. We just did whatever we wanted to do on the basketball court."

Darius Miles, who's said that sometimes he's on the court just wishing the game was over, sounded like he agrees. "Tracy McGrady probably went through something similar when he was in Toronto, with a bunch of young guys," Miles told the Orlando Sentinel. "When any team makes a run on us, we stop running our offense, and that broke us up."

Peep Show

Los Angeles Lakers: Shaquille O'Neal is beginning to get upset with his diminished role in the offense. O'Neal took just 13 shots on Friday. "I want to be put into a position to do what I do," O'Neal told the L.A. Times. "I'm not a token big man. I'm not Bill Cartwright, who runs up and down the court for 15 minutes and doesn't touch it. Bum foot or not." Is Shaq pointing the finger at Kobe? "No, no, no. Right now he's doing his thing. He's doing it within the flow of the game. Look, every great team has a one-two punch. I'm just saying, when I'm down there and got a bum on my back, and all 28 teams' centers are bums, when I got a bum on my back in scoring position I want the ball. That's all."

New Orleans Hornets: The team is on a six-game winning streak and Baron Davis is still a week away from returning. Coach Paul Silas is thrilled with the way the team has played in Davis' absence. "It's been great," Silas told the Times Picayune. "All along, I said if we could stay around that .500 mark until Baron got back, we'd be doing good. Little did I know we'd be doing better than the .500. Normally you wait until you get one of your starting players back, and that's when you really take off. That's what happened last year (when Jamal Mashburn returned after missing the first 42 games of the years with an abdominal strain). But we've just hit on a combination that worked. Just clicked."

Detroit Pistons: The team may have lost seven straight, but it's not holding its head down. "We hate that we lost these games," Ben Wallace told the Detroit Free Press. "But we haven't lost each other. We haven't lost one single guy in this room and that right there will help us turn this around."

Houston Rockets: Houston, it appears there's a problem. After Sunday's loss to the Spurs, Yao Ming, of all people, raised the red flag. "I just don't think we're prepared to play at the beginning of the game," Yao told the Houston Chronicle. "I have some concerns. Sometimes we're able to thoroughly beat our opponents. Other times, we let the opponent do whatever they want." Coach Rudy Tomjanovich agrees. "We've got to do something about our slow starts defensively. They got in a comfort zone. Then when it got to an embarrassing stage, we picked it up. I expected a completely different game. I liked that we didn't quit, but we can't just keep waiting until it gets to that point when the light comes back in. We've got to find a way to change it."

Phoenix Suns: Penny Hardaway looks like he's close to returning to the team. His first full contact practice with the team was Friday. "I just want to get back into the swing of things, see where I'm at," he told the Arizona Republic. "My stamina and my legs are there. In the past, my problems have been with my knee, and it's hard to stay in shape when your knee is hurting. But I was able to get seven good weeks of work on my legs, so I feel good."

Boston Celtics: Vin Baker's physical problems are related to his liver, as well as his heart, and are exacerbated by his alcohol intake, Celtic sources told the Boston Herald. Are the Celts creating a medical scenario that Baker, by continuing to drink against doctor's orders, has left himself liable contractually? Baker reportedly signed an agreement that he will go without pay until he completes rehab program. If he maintains his health upon his return to the team, money would be returned to him. Had Baker not signed the agreement, the team was prepared to suspend him for violation of his contract (the clause that states a player must present himself as fit to play), the Herald reported. The NBPA plans to file a grievance over the contract.

NBA Draft: Missouri juniors Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson told the Kansas City Star that they'll return to the Tigers for their senior season.

03-03-2003, 01:24 PM
Thanks for posting that Outlet. It looks like we have further confirmation of Tyrone Hill's intentions to sign with Philly. That was interesting that Insider said that we offered him more money though...

03-03-2003, 05:49 PM
<< Thanks for posting that Outlet. It looks like we have further confirmation of Tyrone Hill's intentions to sign with Philly. That was interesting that Insider said that we offered him more money though... >>

Apparently the mid-level exception offered by the Mavs got beaten by his affinity on the Sixers.

03-03-2003, 07:36 PM
I found those numbers on KG very interesting. He's an amazing dude.