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February 14, 2005
Minneapolis, Minn. — It was 25 years ago when Kevin McHale first stepped onto an NBA basketball court. His playing career went well, earning him a spot in the sport's Hall of Fame. But Sunday, he was a rookie all over again. After the loss to the Bulls, he admitted some jitters preceded his first game as a coach.
"I actually felt very comfortable once the game started. I slept about two hours last night, wondering what the hell I was going to do out there," McHale said. "But, y'know, the game's the game. You wonder if you're going to see it differently sitting down there. But I've played my whole life. There's things I like and things I don't like. And we've got to clean up some stuff."
McHale has been a vice president of the Timberwolves for more than 10 years, and now his task is to clean up the tatters of a season that started with realistic hopes for a championship. The Wolves were coming off their best showing in the team's 15-year history, having won 70 percent of their games and fallen just two wins short of a spot in the NBA Finals last spring.
But that has only compounded the frustration of the current season, which sees the team floundering, with more losses than wins and the chances of a ninth straight playoff appearance dwindling.
In announcing the coaching change on Saturday, McHale criticized the Timberwolves for not always playing their hardest this season. A day later, he was crediting their effort in spite of another loss.
"I'll say that at least they fought hard. They fought hard. That's the first thing I asked of them," McHale said. "I said, 'Forget everything else. Forget all the Xs and Os, forget anything else, we've just got to just go out and fight.' And that's what we've got to do."
The Wolves fought back from a 14-point deficit to briefly take the lead against the Bulls. But they scored only two points in the last three minutes, as they fell to their eighth loss in nine games.
Afterwards, players were subdued as some provided their first public responses to the coaching change. Saunders was generally well-liked by his players.
When Saunders took over the Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett was a 19-year-old rookie, barely six months out of high school. Now Garnett is the NBA's reigning most valuable player, who will turn 29 before the season ends. Asked if he agreed with the decision to remove Saunders, Garnett did not answer directly, but made it clear that the change was mandated by Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor.
"It doesn't matter if I agree with it or not. It's what the boss man wanted, it's what the boss man did," said Garnett. "It had nothing to do with Kevin Garnett's decision, had nothing to do with Kevin McHale's decision, Latrell Sprewell's decision -- had nothing to do with it. Glen Taylor wanted to make a decision on his own, so he did it. So, it doesn't matter what I think."
The Timberwolves' struggles are among the biggest surprises in the NBA this season, and there's no obvious explanation. Their roster is nearly identical to that of last season. In fact, Taylor -- already paying a luxury tax for exceeding the league's preferred payroll limit -- dug deeper in his wallet over the summer to keep last year's team intact.
When the same group of players struggled through the first half of this season, some analysts faulted Saunders for failing to motivate the Timberwolves to play their best. The day after Saunders was shunted into a front office job, center Ervin Johnson was among a handful of players saying the now-former coach should not be a scapegoat for the players' shortcomings.
"I'm not going to put it all on Flip. I think players are responsible, as well as Flip. I thought he did a great job. The players didn't do their job. All of us. All 12 of us," said Johnson. "It's not just one guy, but all 12 of us. Everybody who puts a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey on is responsible, it's not just the coach."
Dissecting the differences a year makes is difficult in a Timberwolves locker room, where players and staff are clearly weary of being asked to explain their failures.
McHale would not entertain a comparison, saying only that he has more gray hair than he did a year ago. Point guard Sam Cassel, who -- like last year -- is struggling with injuries, thinks critics should let go of the past.
"Every year presents new challenges to a team," said Cassell. "I don't get sick and tired of it, but everybody talks about last year, last year. That's old, man. You know what I'm saying? I'm talking about this year."
This year has 30 games left to be played. Eight Western Conference teams will make the playoffs. The Timberwolves currently have the ninth best record.