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jayC
03-07-2003, 05:24 PM
West's best wild on getting to Finals

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By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com


It was the very definition of poignant. There sat Kevin Garnett, exhausted, his backside aching, his ankle throbbing, all alone in a foreign locker room, no coaches, no teammates, no trainers, trying to will himself to face the next challenge, the next battle, knowing that he will have to have more nights like this one if his Minnesota Timberwolves are going to have any chance.

Twenty-five points.

Twenty-four rebounds.

Fifty minutes. On the second night of a back-to-backer.


Every game in the West is a battle for Kevin Garnett, left, and Chris Webber.
Loss.

Minutes earlier, he had embraced Chris Webber, with whom he'd battled for most of those 50 minutes, whose own ankle is still terribly swollen, who is going out there every night for the Kings at around 70 percent, unable to elevate, instead of taking a night off. Because it's that time of year.

"My coach asked me if I was OK, and I said, 'Yeah,' and he said 'Are you lying to me?' and I had to lie to him," Webber said.

Win.

This is the Western Conference. In the last two weeks, I have seen just about all of the contenders to the throne: the Mavericks, Spurs, Kings, Timberwolves and Jazz. In 15 years of covering hoop, I have never seen competition like this. Never seen so many superstars excelling nightly. Never seen so many worthy teams that are laying it on the line. Everyone believes the Lakers are vulnerable, and everyone is hungry. Everyone is desperate to get what Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have.

"I would love another shot at them," Duncan said of his Southern California tormentors.

The west is full of dominant players, like Duncan, with his arsenal of drop steps and reverse pivots. There is Webber, now a complete player, demanding the ball in the low box and converting time and time again, defending the low post with honor and passion. There is Garnett, all over the floor, scoring from the wings, the key, the post, grabbing board after board, snuffing drives to the hole. There is Nowitzki, dropping rainbows from the sky. Maybe he's a step behind (and, by extension, so may be the Mavericks), but he's learning quickly (and so are they). There is the old guard, StocktontoMalone, who simply will not leave the stage, rejuvenated by new, contributing teammates. And a few lengths off the pace, but still dangerous potential first-round opponents, are the Starburys and Franchises and Yaos of the world.

But you can't win out here without a fully functional team, one that can defend as well as score. The Spurs, Mavs, Jazz, Wolves and Kings are all in the top nine in defensive field goal percentage.

The Spurs have reinvented themselves on the fly. While they still will pound the ball inside to Duncan, they now can get out and run. Really run. Tony Parker is eerily reminiscent of a young Kevin Johnson; no one in the league is quicker from point A to point B with the ball, and that includes Allen Iverson. Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili make San Antonio, egads, athletic, running the wings, finishing above the rim, getting offense off their defense.

"We're good at scrambling," Jackson said. "In the past years, it's been pass the ball into Tim, and everybody else sits and watches. But this year we've got guys who can create. We've got slashers now. We can play off of Tim. And it's helping Tim a lot. It definitely makes it easier for him when you've got other guys who can score and take the pressure off."

The Timberwolves are desperate to get homecourt advantage for the first time in their history -- and, not coincidentally, get out of the first round for the first time in their history. With an 18-game winning streak at Target Center, it would make sense for Minnesota to stay home as often as possible. The Wolves have tightened up their defense, and Troy Hudson has filled in nicely for Terrell Brandon. Rasho Nesterovic is showing signs of life in the post. But Minnesota's hopes still ride with Garnett, who has never been this good. His personal quest to prove his critics wrong is burning a hole inside him.

"I never bought into all that crap," Sacramento's Rick Adelman said of Garnett. "They talked in the playoffs about him. That's a bunch of baloney. It's so easy to sit in the studio and say he's got to do this, he's got to do that. That team plays a certain way, and he plays the game the way they want him to play. I watched that series last year. We were going to play the winner of that series. It wasn't Kevin Garnett; it was Dallas. Dallas was the reason he didn't take them to the next level. They couldn't guard Dallas. Simple as that."

ALDRIDGE'S RANKINGS
THE TOP 10
1. Dallas
2. San Antonio
3. Sacramento
4. Minnesota
5. Indiana
6. Philadelphia
7. Portland
8. New Jersey
9. Utah
10. L.A. Lakers

THE BOTTOM FIVE
25. Chicago
26. Memphis
27. Miami
28. Denver
29. Cleveland


THE MIDDLE FOURTEEN
11. Detroit
12. New Orleans
13. Orlando
14. Boston
15. Phoenix
16. Golden State
17. Washington
18. Milwaukee
19. Houston
20. Seattle
21. New York
22. Toronto
23. Atlanta
24. L.A. Clippers




But will the Wolves be gassed by the time the playoffs roll around? They're showing a disturbing tendency of giving away late leads, making uncharacteristic mistakes. Up three in the final minute the other night in Sacramento, Wally Szczerbiak plowed into Peja Stojakovic on a 3-point shot. You love the hustle, hate the mental blunder.

"Flip (Saunders) doesn't substitute a lot in the second half," Garnett said. "We know that. It's not like we can do anything about that. I've been in the team's ear about how we have to close out games."

The Kings are like those exotic bugs you see sometimes on those nature shows: hack a leg off, they grow it back. For Mike Bibby, there is Bobby Jackson; for Jackson, there is Damon Jones; for Webber, there is Keon Clark; for Doug Christie, there is Jimmy Jackson, and on, and on. They are willing, they are committed -- and they're still P.O.ed about last year's Western finals.

It's why Webber, while sympathetic to teammates like Hedo Turkoglu -- whose run of late has been sparse -- doesn't want to hear any complaining.

"I understand, but we're going for a championship," Webber said.

We know what Dallas can do offensively. But this season is all about the other end of the floor. The Mavs still have that playoff loss to Sacramento in their craw. (I can't help but believe that Mark Cuban, his public words to the contrary, will see how the Mavs do in the postseason this time around before deciding what to do with Nellie.) They have made an effort to improve their defense, but while Minnesota has gradually gotten away from playing zone this season, Dallas is still throwing up combinations as well as man looks. It still comes down to Shawn Bradley and Dirk Nowitzki in the hole. Can they get stops when they need them? Can Bradley be a defensive force every night in the postseason?

"If he just blocks shots, if he just dominates the middle -- not even blocks shots, just deflects shots," Avery Johnson said of Bradley. "I think (this year proves) he can go to another level even at this stage of his career. But you've got to do it every night. When I say every night, you've got to do it 80 percent of the time. Obviously, you're not going to play good all 82 games. But we can't afford for him to have three-week lulls, with no production. Just can't afford it."

The countdown is on. Five weeks to go.

This ought to be really good.

One last delivery
Karl Malone knows he cannot convince Garnett and Shaq to join him on the Olympic team, if they'd rather spend the next two summers with their families, or working out, instead of going to Puerto Rico and Athens. When the Wolves and Jazz played in Minnesota last week, he didn't do any lobbying.

"I didn't think that was the appropriate place," Malone said.


Malone


But Malone is going. Gladly. Proudly. For he, at 39, is surely the last member of the one and only Dream Team, the 1992 U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, who will represent his country in international competition. Malone knows what that honor means.

"I played in college and I didn't make the Olympic team," Malone said. "When I talked to Stu (Jackson, the chair of the selection committee), I realized what's at hand here. For them to let me be a part of it and put the responsibility on me, I don't see any negatives at all. You make a different kind of history ... it's the way that they want us to win. I don't think they're looking for the chest-bumping and all that. Like I've always said, you win with dignity and pride and you lose that way, too."

Malone may never win a title, but it is undeniable that he has cemented a spot in NBA history as one of the game's all-time greats. Barring injury, he will break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record in a couple of years (and make no mistake, he will play until he does). If the U.S. team qualifies next summer for the 2004 Games, Malone will be a three-time Olympian, something no male basketball player has done. No one in his generation, save Michael Jordan, has accomplished so much. And Malone has fulfilled the promise he made to his grandfather, Leonard Jackson, when he was a teen-ager:

Whatever he did in life, he was going to work hard at it.

"I wish my grandfather was here to see me," Malone said. "Every time I step out on that court I'm representing 35 and older, or 40, or 45. In a way, I've carved out my own niche. When I look in the mirror at night, I don't think I've sold myself out for anything, whether it's endorsements or whatever."

Around the League
Tyrone Hill opted for the Sixers over the Mavericks only after extensive lobbying and phone calls from Allen Iverson and Eric Snow -- two of the remaining three teammates from Hill's previous stint in Philly -- who told him that he could be the difference for the Sixers down the stretch, while minutes would be hard to come by with the Mavericks. ... The Pistons are holding out hope that Zeljko Rebraca will opt to have surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat and ultimately return to action instead of retiring. Rebraca has missed two months after the irregular beat flared up, and while the Pistons were on their road trip west, he was in Europe, getting numerous opinions. But the Pistons believe a procedure could correct the problem. ... Yes, the Pacers are struggling on the road right now. But this week's four-game stint out west is their last extensive road trip of the season. Nine of their next 11 after the road trip will be at Conseco Fieldhouse. ... At least one coach of a playoff team was delighted that the Mavericks opted not to move Nick Van Exel to Miami for Brian Grant before the trade deadline. "He's the guy that really makes them go," the coach said. "You put him and (Steve) Nash out there together, and they're impossible to guard. They would be much easier to play if Grant was out there. Who would you rather come off of -- Van Exel or Grant?"

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.