Even if the Lakers close out Minnesota in the Western Conference finals here Monday night as most of us suspect, the trip halfway across the country will have been worth it if for no other reason than to see Kevin Garnett play once more this season. In just six weeks he has gone from a great regular season player who couldn't advance his team in the playoffs to a master of all trades, a player capable of dueling with the stampeding Shaquille O'Neal and the acrobatic Kobe Bryant. The appeal and the melodrama of the Lakers shouldn't overshadow what perhaps is the most versatile performance in NBA playoff history.
The Timberwolves have this glimmer of hope mostly because Garnett is so uniquely skilled and so willing to do whatever is asked of him . . . which is everything. He'll undoubtedly be asked to do in Game 6 what he did in Game 5, which is play all five positions offensively and all five positions defensively, something neither the great Michael Jordan nor Bryant, his heir, were ever asked to do nor could do. "I said five years ago that what we ask KG to do is remarkable," his coach, Flip Saunders, said after Minnesota's series-extending victory in Game 5. But with primary playmaker and fourth-quarter star Sam Cassell injured, Saunders has gone further than even he imagined, asking the 7-foot Garnett to be the point guard, too. That would make him the primary playmaker, the team's only post-up player, its most consistent medium-range jump shooter, its best shot-blocker, best post defender and No. 1 scoring option in the fourth quarter. "He's everywhere," Saunders said. "He has to handle the ball, he has to initiate our offense . . . "
Trying to recall another situation where a single player has been asked to carry out so many tasks deep into the playoffs, Saunders said, " . . . when Magic was asked to do [everything] for the Lakers against Philly." Saunders was referring, of course, to Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals between the Lakers and 76ers, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured and had to miss the game. The Lakers asked Earvin Johnson, a rookie, to play every position that night, including the one held down for a couple of decades by Abdul-Jabbar. And all Magic did was score 42 points, grab 15 rebounds and hand out 7 assists for arguably the single greatest playoff performance ever to win the series for the Lakers, on the road in Philadelphia no less.
When folks, even coaches, start to invoke comparisons with players as historically great as Magic, eyes tend to roll to the heavens. But Saunders is on safe ground. You know who agrees with every word of Saunders's comparison? Magic.
"They've put the ball in Kevin's hands much like the Lakers put the ball in my hands that night," Magic said Saturday night. "They're asking him to not only make the plays for himself that he's accustomed to making, but also to make plays for his teammates. And in Kevin's case he's had to change his entire thought process to do this. When he sees a double team, he automatically looks for an open man because he just isn't a guy who forces shots. But in this case he can't pass. He just can't. I couldn't in Game 6 against Philly, even though that's the way I had played all my life. You have to think against your instincts. The defense is coming at you and your first thought is, 'Oh, oh . . . that guy's open. Let me get him the ball.'
"But something different was required of him in this case," Magic continued, "because with Sam out every player on Minnesota's team is feeding off what Kevin does now, just like every guy was feeding off me. In my case, I was on the road, in the NBA Finals, I'm playing against my basketball idol [Julius Erving]. In Kevin's case, he's playing against four Hall of Famers, his point guard is out, one minute he's on the perimeter guarding a guard and the next he's down on the block guarding the big fella . . . He knew he had to dominate this game, and to do that you have to be selfish, which is against his nature. But him playing the way he did allowed Fred Hoiberg to get comfortable. It got Wally [Szczerbiak] comfortable. It allowed [Latrell] Sprewell to assert himself. Kevin made the Lakers pay so much attention to him that it eased the pressure on his teammates."
I'm of an age to recall so many of the details of Magic's Game 6 performance in Philly. It was broadcast on tape-delay in most of America. In college at the time, I left my date for the Delta Ball -- cute little Donna Williams -- at the dance (as promised in advance, I might add) so as not to miss Magic subbing for Kareem in a game chock full of great, great players. I told Magic I believe to this day it was his greatest performance ever, even better than the night in Boston he hit the "junior skyhook" over a sea of outstretched hands to sink the Celtics. "It was my greatest game, no doubt about it," Magic said.
It's unthinkable a rookie could have that prolific, that clutch a game in the playoffs nowadays (much less Game 6 of the Finals). What Magic did that night was basketball art of the highest order. And Garnett, now 28, is certainly no rookie. Any larger comparison with Magic, at least to somebody as old school as I am, would be blasphemy. Nevertheless, playing the entire court and excelling in every phase of the game (30 points, 19 rebounds, 4 assists) is nothing short of stunning. And it's not like the Wolves are asking him to play all these positions and master all these tasks just once. He did it some in Game 2, more in Game 4, all of Game 5 and presumably will have to in most of Game 6 unless Cassell has some sort of miraculous recovery.
Garnett says he won't use the words "tired" or "fatigued" while his team is still playing. Saunders begged him to come to the bench for a rest late in Game 6. Garnett refused for the longest time, then with 7 1/2 minutes left and Minnesota up 10 points, he looked over to the bench and winked at Saunders, who got the meaning. Garnett sat on the bench for two minutes.
But even though he won't say he's tired, Garnett is to-the-bone exhausted. "It's not easy to be the point person, then try to find rhythm somewhere else," he told reporters. "But it's something I've got to do."
You could spend the entire game just watching Garnett and never grow bored. His versatility is his greatest asset. Because he sets the best screens of any Minnesota player, he pops out to initiate the screen-and-roll to free Sprewell, Hoiberg or Szczerbiak for open shots. Because Garnett is 7 feet tall, he has to go down and subject himself to a knee in the rump from Karl Malone. Who else can play the point going one way, then engage 360-pound Shaq in bump-and-grind going the other way?
"There's only one cat who can," Magic said, "and you just saw him. Oh, you can ask other players to do it. But they asked Kevin to do it, and he delivered."