Triumvirate Coming into Own Under McHale, Saunders

Triumvirate Coming into Own Under McHale, Saunders

January 12, 1997

DOUBLE-DRIBBLING while noticing that Oliver Miller's next endorsement should be for Wonderbra:

Nobody should be getting too carried away this early in January. But if the Knicks can crow about moving into first place in the Atlantic Division, why can't the Timberwolves start getting excited about a potential playoff berth?

Think about that. In seven seasons, Minnesota has never won as many as 30 games, has never played a meaningful game after the All-Star break and is the only team among the four expansion clubs that came into the league in the late '80s that hasn't qualified for the postseason. The T-Wolves have been so bad, when you think of pro ball in Minneapolis, you still think of the Lakers. And they left town almost four decades ago.

But Stephon Marbury, Kevin Garnett and Tom Gugliotta are set to change all that. They've led the T-Wolves to a four-game winning streak. Doesn't sound like much, until you realize it matched the longest in team annals. The impressive set of wins over the Lakers, Knicks, Jazz and Nuggets was their first since Feb. 1990, and occurred during a stretch when Minnesota won six of seven.

The Timberwolves chances of making the playoffs are being helped considerably by all the losing in Dallas, San Antonio, Denver and Phoenix. Those teams were picked to make the playoffs, but are in varying states of disarray. The Mavs are cleaning house and are expected to be at the forefront of any trading activity before the Feb. 20 deadline. The Spurs are totally hopeless without David Robinson. In Phoenix, you've got players throwing towels at the head coach. And in Denver, the Nuggets are in upheaval because of an impending sale and sweeping changes in the front office.

With those four headed to the lottery, there might be a playoff spot for the Timberwolves. They've been as high as fifth place in the West and spent most of last week in sixth.

Minnesota GM Kevin McHale targeted 40 wins for the season. His team might not reach that goal, but because the league is so down, 35-38 wins could wrap up one of the eight playoff berths. And that's all McHale cares about. In addressing the players for the first time in training camp, the ex-Celtic great put everyone on notice that an eighth-straight lottery finish was unacceptable.

"If your goal is not to make the playoffs," he announced, "you're in the wrong place."

Minneapolis was always the wrong place for Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider. McHale did a good job getting rid of those two headaches, if only that their departures led to the re-birth of Gugliotta. After last season, he was asked by team officials why he spent most of the year in a funk.

"I don't know whose team this is," Gugliotta said.

Said McHale: "You're making $ 5 million a year whose team do you think it should be?"

Gugliotta has been playing like it is his team. He's in the top 10 in scoring and has a chance to be the team's first-ever All-Star. In actuality, this is Garnett's team. The wunderkind takes his game to new levels all the time, proving he made the right move going straight from high school to the pros. One recent game scouts are still buzzing about was his torching of Glenn Robinson. Garnett ate up Big Dog for 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks, four assists and one steal. He had another two-game stretch where he had 18 blocks.

"Sometimes when he leaves the huddle, I find myself saying, 'God, he's only 20,' " said coach Flip Saunders.

At times, Saunders finds himself in awe of his 19-year-old point guard, Marbury. Saunders, a teammate of McHale's at the University of Minnesota, has to get some credit for having the right mindset with Marbury.

In an early game against the Suns, the T-Wolves were down one with the ball and 15 seconds left. During the timeout, he did what was expected, calling for veteran Terry Porter to replace Marbury. Then he caught himself, remembering that Marbury needed to experience that very situation if he was ever going to show the kind of development the T-Wolves expect. So he told Marbury to go back on the floor. As it turns out, Marbury broke down the defense and found Gugliotta for the game-winning shot.

"McHale and I talk a lot about how we have to be patient with a point guard who is 19 years old," Saunders said. "The only way we're going to get where we're going is to live through the mistakes."

Lately, Marbury has limited his mistakes and his cases of the "Iversons." Like Allen Iverson, his rookie counterpart in Philly, the Coney Island product knows he can beat just about everyone off the dribble any time he wants.

But unlike Iverson, who always puts his scoring ahead of his teammates' needs, Marbury has kept his priorities straight. The few times he has lapsed into one-on-one play, he has been receptive to reminders from teammates and coaches and has reverted back to a true point-guard mentality. That kind of coachability has not gone unnoticed.

"I really like Marbury," said Lenny Wilkens. "When he penetrates, he knows where people are. All of a sudden bam! the ball is over here and this guy is able to do something effective."

It remains to be seen how Marbury survives the marathon-like season. On Tuesday, the T-Wolves play Wilkens' Hawks in Atlanta in their 36th game. That will match Marbury's total in his only season at Georgia Tech. Somewhere along the way, he's going to hit the wall. But he says he'll have no trouble keeping his focus.

"Minnesota is one of the greatest places in the world to play basketball," he said. That statement required some elaboration.

"It's so cold, you could throw a pot of boiling water out the window and it will turn into ice right away. And in Minneapolis, there's not really much to do," Marbury explained. "So you can stay focused on basketball all the time. Going there is the best thing that ever happened to me."

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