What's On Tap
Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers (TNT, 9 p.m. ET)
What to Watch
Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Wally Szczerbiak appeared to be on his way to becoming a media darling. He scored points like a marquee player, has fashion-model good looks and he had improved each of his first three seasons in the NBA.
The fine play and good fortune paid off during the 2001-02 season with an 18.7 scoring average, an All Star game appearance, a six-year, $63-million contract and cover shoots with top fashion magazines.
What everybody had hoped was a trend skyward turned out to be a spike, or at least that's the way it looks now. Szczerbiak's scoring averaged has tumbled. His injuries have mounted. He is out of the starting lineup.
But at 27, he has emerged as a role player in the playoffs. Coming off the bench in Game 2 of the Western conference finals Sunday, Szczerbiak had 16 points and seven assists in the Timberwolves' 89-71 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I'm trying to help wherever possible, but this is not a role I'm used to," Szczerbiak told Newsday during the regular season. "Quite frankly, I'm not comfortable coming off the bench. I've got to change my mindset. It hasn't been easy."
The decline began with a variety of injuries. In 2002-03, he sat out 30 games but finished with a 17.6-point scoring average. This season he has missed 54 games and averaged 10.2 points.
As he struggled, there was other uncertainty. Szczerbiak nearly came to blows with Kevin Garnett during a heated locker-room argument that both players say is now behind them. Last summer, Minnesota general manager signed LaTrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, two veteran scoring threats. Suddenly, Szczerbiak was getting pushed out of the offense.
Once the Timberwolves' No. 2 scoring option behind Garnett, Szczerbiak is now used to throw the team's offense into high gear. Coach Flip Saunders compares this to a curveball pitcher who changes up with a fast ball.
"[Starter Trenton Hassell] can lock up their best player defensively to start games, which helps keep you in the game," Saunders told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last month. "Then Wally comes in off the bench."
Szczerbiak's size (6-7, 235) presents problems. If opponents defend him with one of their guards, they are likely to be smaller and could give Szczerbiak an advantage near the basket. If they guard him with a forward, Szczerbiak is liable to be too fast for them or will hurt them from the three-point line.
His willingness to adapt to his new role is likely to endear him more to Minnesota fans. So his quick return after breaking three bones in his back during the Timberwolves first-round playoff series against Denver.
Despite the success as a reserve, Szczerbiak still sees himself as a starter and an all star.
"We never put all four of our All-Stars out there together," Szczerbiak told Newsday. "And we have four All-Stars: Sprewell, Cassell, [Kevin Garnett] and me."
Last Night's Big Winner (Team)
Detroit Pistons. Proving worthy of the attention their defense has received during the regular season, the Pistons held the Pacers to 27.5 percent shooting, a franchise low in the playoffs, and blocked 19 shots. Indiana had seven blocks.
Last Night's Big Loser (Team)
Indiana Pacers. Poor shooting combined with poor play from reserves, who were outscored by Pistons' bench 23-11, sent Indiana to 72-67 loss at home.
Last Night's Big Winner (Player)
Richard Hamilton. Guard boosted team with much-needed offense, scoring 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting.
Last Night's Big Loser (Player)
Al Harrington. Super-sub was held without a point in 18 minutes.