St. Paul, Minn. — Flip Saunders has been coaching the Timberwolves for more than half of the 14 years of their existence. So it was more than faint praise when Saunders said this about the Wolves' performance in Game 2 of their series with the Lakers:
"It was as good a game as we probably have played since I've been here. From the standpoint of 48 minutes of intensity and following a game plan for 48 minutes and really not having very many lapses."
There were a number of heroes for the Timberwolves. Point guard Troy Hudson enjoyed the highest scoring season of his career by averaging 14 points a game this year. Needless to say, the 37 points he scored against the Lakers made it the highest scoring game of his career.
Hudson's sharp passing set up 10 baskets. He also made 15 free throws -- a testament to the relentlessness he showed in driving to the hoop and drawing fouls from Laker defenders. Hudson says the Wolves coaching staff has urged him to play aggressively.
"They've been telling me this all year, that when I'm not aggressive I limit what the team can do out there on the court. My style is up and down, being aggressive, taking my shots as well as trying to set other people up. They told me to do that, to just take it to 'em. And that's what I did, I came out and focused on just taking it to 'em and trying to get us going from the start," Hudson said.
Hudson's 37 points barely led the team. Kevin Garnett scored 35 to go with his 20 rebounds and seven assists. Wally Szczerbiak scored 21 points and Marc Jackson a dozen. The Timberwolves were in agreement, though, that they won the game not with their passing or free throws or rebounds, but with defense.
Defending the Lakers is made difficult by the fact that they have two of the best players in basketball in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Wolves rose to the dual challenge of trying to prevent O'Neal from getting the ball near the basket, while also disrupting Bryant's perimeter game.
With Bryant hounded by Anthony Peeler and Kendall Gill and O'Neal leaned on by Jackson and Rasho Nesterovic, the Lakers made only 36 percent of their shots compared with 55 percent in game one. Szczerbiak says the Timberwolves will need to maintain that defensive intensity when the series shifts to California.
"We played so hard defensively and we were rotating and trapping and had them on their heels and were making them work for everything. That's what we need to continue to do throughout this seven game series. Because they're going to know our ins and outs, we're going to know their ins and outs and it's just going to be the team that wants it more," he said. Just as the Timberwolves were determined to redeem themselves after their big loss, so, too, will the Lakers be looking to turn the tables again in game three. When Bryant was asked what it felt like to lose a playoff game by 28 points, he found a silver lining in the motivation it will provide as Los Angeles returns to its home court.
"Well, you don't like the feeling because we'd much rather win the ball game. But at the same time, it kind of excites you. Because you realize the playoffs are here and what a full fledged battle this series is going to be. So, I'm upset about the loss but I'm excited to go back to Staples Center and step to the table and get it on for game three. I can't wait," he said.
Los Angeles Coach Phil Jackson was similarly upbeat about the Lakers' position as they head home. Jackson does not expect the Timberwolves will be able to repeat their game two performance.
"I don't think they can play any better than that. It obviously was a desperation game; they came out and played in a way that made us appreciate what their skills are and their talents. We go back to LA having gotten what we wanted, which was home court advantage. I don't think we're supposed to sweep every series; so, we'll go back and try to win on our home court," Jackson said.
Minnesota's win assures that the series will return to Minneapolis. Game five is scheduled for next Tuesday night at Target Center.