Garnett, Marbury, and Googs are Making it Easy for McHale and Saunders

December 27, 1996

For once, things are going the way the Minnesota Timberwolves planned.

Tom Gugliotta is playing like an All-Star, Kevin Garnett is emerging as a dominant force and Stephon Marbury is the point guard the Wolves needed.

Minnesota has waited eight years for something to go right, and its impressive three-game winning streak is a sign that things finally are falling in place. The Wolves have beaten the Lakers, Utah and New York - teams with a combined 60-23 record entering Friday's games - and can match the longest streak in their history by beating the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

"The way we've won the games is more important than just who we beat," guard Terry Porter said. "We've been very aggressive, we haven't taken any smack off of anybody, we've moved the ball through stretches extremely well and we didn't really crack when we were down. I think in years past this franchise may have done that."

In years past, all the franchise did was lose.

Minnesota's 422 losses in their first seven seasons were the most in the NBA during that span. They were choked by poor management, bad luck in the draft lottery and terrible personnel decisions.

Until last year.

Kevin McHale, who became the vice president of basketball operations in May 1995, drafted Garnett out of high school and worked a draft deal last summer to get Marbury, who was only one year out of high school.

He also dumped Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider, who had been problems.

McHale and his coach-general manager-longtime friend Flip Saunders haven't been perfect. They paid center Stoyko Vrankovic $ 3 million a year over three seasons with limited results. But their blend of rising stars and veterans such as Porter, Sam Mitchell and Doug West has given Minnesota its first real chance to make the playoffs.

"It's been a slow process," Gugliotta said. "I wouldn't say after three months together we feel great. Some guys get six, seven, eight years to play together. But we're definitely getting better, and you can tell."

Just look at the Western Conference standings. Minnesota (11-17) is third in the Midwest Division and tied with Golden State for the final two playoff spots.

Minnesota's latest win was a perfect example of how far the team has come.

The Wolves had lost 11 straight games to New York and trailed the Knicks by 16 points midway through the third quarter Thursday night before rallying for an 88-80 win. They did it with Marbury breaking down the Knicks' defense, with Gugliotta hitting clutch shots in the fourth quarter and the entire team playing ferocious defense.

New York missed 11 straight shots at one point in the fourth quarter, with Gugliotta accounting for two steals and blocking a shot by Patrick Ewing in that stretch. Garnett, the NBA's leading shot blocker among forwards, had six blocks against a team known for its own intimidating defensive presence.

Marbury, Gugliotta and Garnett combined for 69 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals.

"It means a lot having all three of those guys," Saunders said. "They all have the ability to score, they all have the ability to pass. They all have the ability to do other things. They're not what you'd call one-dimensional players."

Saunders also has been a big reason for the turnaround.

A longtime CBA coach, he became Minnesota's fifth coach in just over six seasons when he replaced Bill Blair early last season. He has instilled confidence and enthusiasm in the Wolves while challenging them to assert themselves at home.

Minnesota is 22-21 at Target Center under Saunders, compared to a 50-125 home record in the four-plus seasons before he took over. The coach also asserted himself this week, engaging in shouting matches with Karl Malone and Ewing.

"You try to do what you can," Saunders said. "If your team's not where you want them to be you try to get them over the top."

The Wolves aren't there yet. They still have a gaping hole at center and in the next 18 months will be faced with the critical business of signing Garnett to a longterm contract that almost certainly will be worth more than $ 100 million.

But for now, Minnesota simply is enjoying its rebirth.

"Slowly but surely," Marbury said. "It's going to take us time. Maybe it'll take us another year, maybe two years. But we're going to be a team that people, they're not going to want to play us."

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