Benefit of the doubt doesn't convey with a spot deep in the playoffs. It has to be earned, especially by teams with fresh faces and no postseason pedigree. So there was every reason to think the Western Conference finals might be a short affair, what with the Lakers on a roll and up a game on Minnesota. Let's just say most folks were waiting for a sign of encouragement that the Timberwolves were up to this latest challenge, and I'm not talking about Sam Cassell walking like Fred Sanford into the home locker room 43 seconds into Game 2, his back having betrayed him again.
The Timberwolves have to answer the question every ascending franchise faces, outside the Lakers and Celtics: Do they have the resourcefulness of a champion? When injured and tired and trailing in a series, do they have what it takes to get off the floor and resume the fight? Usually, even in the case of the Bad Boy Pistons and Michael Jordan's Bulls, it takes several years to answer in the affirmative. So it's too early to decide anything definitive about Minnesota just yet.
But the Timberwolves did pass a big test Sunday night, winning big here, 89-71, at home in what was clearly a must game to have any chance at winning this series, or to even threaten the Lakers for that matter. They got a flawless game out of Darrick Martin, playing in Cassell's spot, and demanded everything imaginable from all 12 men on the roster, each of whom Coach Flip Saunders put on the floor before halftime.
Of course, the best of those Wolves was Kevin Garnett, who may be in the midst of one of the great basketball ascensions during these playoffs. What Garnett must have learned in Game 1 when Shaquille O'Neal torched Minnesota with 27 points and 18 rebounds and took away the Wolves' home-court advantage is that championship-level greatness means doing it every night . . . well, except if you're the Lakers, in which case you can flip it on and off like a desk lamp.
Garnett's Game 7 against Sacramento is ancient history now; it was time for him to lift his team again, and he did it. Against the Lakers on Sunday night, Garnett had 24 points and 11 rebounds, settled the team when Cassell went out, and in general controlled and played the game the way we're coming to expect.
But Martin's performance wasn't that kind of gimme. Since leaving UCLA he's bounced around the NBA for nine years, played for Saunders in the CBA. Veteran players, when talking about the playoffs, speak lovingly of "X-Factors." Those are the non-stars who impact a playoff game or games. Robert Horry is a Hall of Fame X-Factor. Martin made only 4 of 11 shots, but he hit all six of his free throws, made six assists and didn't turn the ball over once, which is rather astounding in such a high-pressure game. Phil Jackson had all kinds of players take a run at Martin in the back court, sometimes for all 90-plus feet up the floor. But Martin didn't flinch. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity to play," he said time and again afterward.
With Cassell out, the Wolves went to "about three, maybe four sets," Garnett said. Garnett had to handle the ball himself quite a bit in 41 minutes. So did Latrell Sprewell in his 44 minutes. Martin played 37 minutes, and Wally Szczerbiak played 39. "With Sam being out," Garnett said, "everybody had to take some responsibility on his back."
It sounded like silly coach-speak when Jackson told reporters before the game he hoped Cassell would play, because as clutch as Cassell has been in the playoffs over his career, at least the Lakers knew how and from where Cassell would attack. A Cassell-led Timberwolves team is a known quantity, and coaches always prefer the known, even if there's little they can do about it.
But the unknown . . . that's what makes coaches nuts, even a guy with a zillion championships like Dr. Zen. His big fear was that Garnett would have to do more with Cassell out, and would but from different angles on the floor. Garnett would do unpredictable stuff the Lakers hadn't prepared for, and that would hurt the Lakers mostly on defense.
As usual, Jackson knew exactly what he was talking about. Certainly, the Wolves would always rather have Cassell, but in this case, with Garnett starting the offense from the top of the circle on many possessions, Sprewell and Szczerbiak were taking shots they might not otherwise. In fact, Minnesota's offense was especially democratic; going into the fourth quarter Sprewell, Szczerbiak and Garnett each had 15 points.
But even more than strategy, the Wolves had to be the aggressor from start to finish, and did. And it took the Lakers by surprise. "We weren't expecting them to come out with that much bravado," Jackson said. "They just kept playing harder and harder all night long."
The Lakers didn't expect the Wolves could keep pressuring offensively without Cassell, and were rather surprised Ervin Johnson, Mark Madsen, Oliver Miller and Michael Olowokandi could crowd Shaq to the point where he had only 14 points on 4-or-10 shooting. When Johnson outscored Shaq in the first half, Saunders told his assistants to "frame that stat sheet. [Johnson] might want to keep it."
There's always the possibility, given the Lakers didn't really start to play to their potential until the eighth game of the playoffs, that they just got bored and weren't particularly interested in a Game 2 when they already had the lead in the series. Five straight games -- all victories -- is about as long as the Lakers have played with passion since the middle of the season. At halftime, Jackson told his players they hadn't performed with any real sense of urgency. And they didn't until play got contentious late when various players had to be separated, and Karl Malone was ejected for running through Martin like a bull through a red cape.
"I think Minnesota raised their level of play tonight," said Kobe Bryant, the only Laker to have any kind of a game (27 points). "I think they played with desperation tonight, which we did not match."
Asked if the Lakers felt the same way about this game, Kobe said: "No. We weren't desperate."
With the series tied, and Minnesota having demonstrated it's in this series and not about to back down, one would expect the Timberwolves once again would have the Lakers' attention -- and the attention of anybody looking for a competitive series in the Western Conference final.