McHale, Saunders forge New Big Three in Minny

McHale, Saunders forge New Big Three in Minny

April 4, 2004

One is quiet but a fire inside drives him. Another is always talking, the one who makes sure the offense runs smoothly. The third is a $100 million player nicknamed the Big Ticket.

Those three players -- Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell and Kevin Garnett -- have been the glue holding together the Timberwolves this season. How they play usually dictates the outcome of a game. If all three are on, the Wolves likely win. If only one is on, and in that case it's usually Garnett, the Wolves usually struggle.

The threesome, nicknamed the Big Three, has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. They sit side by side on the bench, and they're the ones who usually show up on the nightly television highlights. Now they will end the season as the Wolves' highest-scoring trio in team history. When it comes to the percentage of team points they score, the Big Three will finish second all time in the NBA, behind only Wilt Chamberlain's 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors.

"It's something you can hang your hat on and tell your grandkids and kids about," Sprewell said.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The three were supposed to be playing alongside Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Michael Olowokandi to give the Wolves one the deepest teams in the league. But injuries to the latter three forced coach Flip Saunders to scrap his plan and surround his three stars with role players willing to play without getting many shots. With the improvised plan solidified, the Wolves went 23-5 in December and January to move into first place in the Midwest Division.

Many believe the addition of Sprewell and Cassell during the offseason will be the reason behind the Wolves getting out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in team history.

"We had no other choice but to put the ball in their hands," Wolves owner Glen Taylor said. "It wasn't planned, but they sure did a great job with it. The three of them complement each other so well because they all have the same agenda of winning."


Mark Madsen couldn't believe what just happened. He caught the ball while wide open under the basket with 1.6 seconds on the clock against Memphis on Feb. 8. Instead of dunking the ball to ensure the Wolves got the victory, Madsen laid the ball up, and it rolled around the rim before falling out in their 99-98 loss.

As he walked off the court with his head down and a blank stare on his face, he felt an arm go around his neck. It was Garnett, the team's leader.

"If something bad happens on this team, K.G. is the first one to say, 'Keep your head up, there are going to be better days ahead,' " Madsen said. "In this league, sometimes that adversity can tear you apart, and K.G. doesn't let that stuff happen. If something on the team is happening, K.G. steps in and ends it. It's so rare for a superstar to do that.

"K.G. brings it every night, and if you're not ready, you're going to take one look at him and you're going to get ready. And that filters down from Sam and Spree, too. We know those guys can score points, but their whole energy and emotion and passion to win is amazing. Some guys out there look like they're in cruise control out there."

One of the biggest question marks at the start of the season was the Wolves' chemistry. Although the Big Three are the stars on the court, they also lead by example off the court. Garnett is the team's vocal leader. Sprewell is about making sacrifices. He played out of position while with the New York Knicks so Houston could start at shooting guard. And Sprewell caters food to practice on nontravel days to keep the team together.

"There couldn't be more harmony in this locker room," Madsen said. "I'd be amazed if a high school team has this much harmony. We can't tell you how genuine of a human being Latrell is. That's a small expression that means a lot."

Cassell isn't afraid to give a player an earful if he drops a pass or blows an assignment on defense. Garnett leads by example, while the mild-mannered Sprewell only speaks up if called upon.

"We've got other leaders in the locker room, like Erv (Ervin Johnson), but those three are the ones who set the rhythm on how things should be done," Saunders said. "K.G. is going to jell with anyone, it's a matter of the other guys understanding what we want to have done."


Playing alongside each other hasn't been as easy as it appears for the Big Three. All three have been go-to players at one time in their careers. Garnett has the all-around game. Sprewell is the slasher. And Cassell is the jump shooter. The first option is Garnett, then the other two feed off him.

"It took a good three or four weeks almost before we finally figured out how Flip wanted us to play and what we needed to do on the court," Sprewell said. "It didn't happen right away, but when it did, you could see how comfortable everyone was with each other."

The breakout game came Dec. 5 during a nationally televised game at Sacramento, which was undefeated at home at the time. The three combined to score 96 of the team's 112 points in an overtime victory. The 96 points were the highest one-game total by three players in team history. The three have combined to score at least 20 points each in a game 17 times this season.

The three know when they need to assert their game. Garnett provides steady play throughout a game. Cassell is more of a fourth-quarter player. And Sprewell gets the majority of his points while playing alongside the role players.

"The three of them have to play well in order for us to win," backup guard Fred Hoiberg said. "They've all taken their game to another level. All three have been the star on teams at certain times in their career."

Garnett refers to it as "pick your poison" when it comes to slowing them down. Key in on the Ticket, and he feeds Sprewell cutting through the lane for a layup. Aim to stop Sprewell, and Cassell positions himself on the perimeter knocking down midrange jumpers.

Communication is the key. And with it an open relationship that allows criticism.

"That's something that is easy to do for us," Sprewell said. "When one of us makes a mistake on the floor, and when we're not finding each other, we're not afraid to speak up."

The numbers for Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell have decreased since Szczerbiak, Hudson and Olowokandi returned to the lineup. Part of the reason, for Sprewell and Cassell, in particular, is because they were tired from having to carry the load early in the season. But their importance hasn't decreased. Garnett learned that in a loss to Denver on March 24 when he scored 24 points but Cassell and Sprewell combined for only 15.

"As we start the game, we always say the three of us have to be aggressive," Garnett said. "When Spree is not fluent, and he doesn't have it going, then we struggle a little bit. I think vice versa with myself, and even Sam sometimes. The three of us understand we have to be aggressive for 48 minutes, or this team doesn't go anywhere. We're sort of like the head of the pack, so to speak. If we don't get it done, the guys behind us are not going to follow."

Barring a last-minute drop-off, Garnett is a virtual lock for most valuable player. Sprewell has reasserted himself after a slow start in March. But Cassell, a first-time all-star, has been in an offensive funk the past few weeks. With the playoffs less than two weeks away, Cassell knows their play will dictate how far the Wolves advance.

"Two of us have to be on, and the third one has to be on for us to win the championship," he said. "We can't have Kevin getting 26, I'm getting 20 and Spree is getting nine or 10. We're not going to win in the playoffs like that. Kevin has to do it, I have to do it and Spree has to do it to be successful. Plain and simple."


1. 96 points

Dec. 5, 2003, at Sacramento: Sprewell (37), Garnett (33), Cassell (26)

2. 84 points

Dec. 23, 2003, at New York: Sprewell (31), Cassell (31), Garnett (22)

3. 83 points

Jan. 30, 2004, at L.A. Lakers: Sprewell (35), Cassell (28), Garnett (20)

NOTES: See related story: EARLY STARS

GRAPHIC: 4 Photos

1) Sherri LaRose, Pioneer Press

Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Kevin Garnett, nicknamed the Big THree, likely will end the season as the Timberwoves' highest-scoring trio in team history and second only to the 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors in scoring as a percentage of team points.

2) Kevin Garnett

3) Latrell Sprewell

4) Sam Cassell

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