It was time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to take the next step in 2004. The franchise had become a regular in the playoffs after Flip Saunders took over as head coach early in the 1996 season. The T-Wolves, who debuted in 1990, made their postseason appearance under Saunders in 1998 and had gone each of the next five years. The one common thread in all these playoff trips though, was a first-round exit.
Minnesota was anchored by 27-year-old Kevin Garnett, a machine in scoring and rebounding and a potent defensive force at power forward. The Timberwolves had veteran leadership in the backcourt in 34-year-old Sam Cassell, who’d gotten a ring with Houston in 1994 and played on the 2001 Milwaukee Bucks, who got within one game of the NBA Finals.
The third element to the offense was 31-year-old Latrell Sprewell. He was better known for having once tried to assault his coach when he played at Golden State, but when his anger issues were under control, Sprewell was still a prolific scorer. There wasn’t a lot of depth on the roster, but Garnett, with help from his two sidekicks made it go.
The season started slowly, with three losses in the first five games and the record was still 9-8 at the end of November. Then Minnesota took off, first winning nine of ten, and when that streak was over, they promptly started anew and ripped off thirteen of the next fifteen. Two wins in the latter stretch came over the Los Angeles Lakers, who ‘d won three straight crowns from 2000-02.
By early February, Minnesota’s record was 34-13. The beginning of March was a rocky time, with five losses in eight games, including one to the San Antonio Spurs, who’d won the title the previous June. But the Timberwolves, even at their low ebb, still beat the Lakers.
And the T-Wolves recovered their mojo for the stretch. They won their last nine games to finish 58-24 and pass the Lakers & Spurs in the standings. Minnesota was the #1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and Garnett, with an average of 24 points/14 rebounds/5 assists, plus his defensive prowess, was named MVP.
The first-round opponent was Denver. The Nuggets played at the fastest pace of anyone in the NBA, with 19-year-old Carmelo Anthony being the focal point in his rookie season. Andre Miller was a quality point guard, with Nene Hilario (soon to drop his last name) and Marcus Camby hitting the boards. They weren’t a pushover, and in the deep Western Conference, Minnesota’s first playoff series win was anything but a sure thing.
At times like this, veteran leadership is required and that’s what Cassell provided, dropping 40 points in the first game. Sprewell scored 31 in Game 2. And Garnett? He attacked the glass with a vengeance, collecting 42 rebounds in the first two games, while scoring a combined 50 points. Minnesota won both games by double-digit margins and were halfway home and the series went to the Rocky Mountains.
Anthony had been a non-factor in the first two games, but with 24 points/10 rebounds in Game 3, he matched Garnett’s production and Denver rebounded like a team whose season was on the line, decisively controlling the glass and winning a blowout.
Game 4 was the type of a threshold game a young contender has to win—the war on the road where you can either put a stranglehold on a series, or set yourself up for a long, drawn-out battle. It was nip-and-tuck all the way, but with Garnett posting a 27/14 and outplaying Anthony, it was Minnesota who escaped with an 84-82 win. The T-Wolves returned home to a Friday night crowd in Minneapolis, got 28 from Garnett, 26 from Cassell and finally closed out a first-round series advance, with a 102-91 win.
Sacramento was up next. The Kings had won 55 games and steamrolled Dallas in five games in the first round. Furthermore, the Kings were only two years removed from year they should have been the NBA champs, if not for a loss against the Lakers that qualifies as the most egregiously officiated game in the history of professional sports. The core three of that should-have-been championship team was still intact, with guard Mike Bibby, power forward Chris Webber and wingman and three-point marksman Peja Stojakovic. They were one of the best offensive teams in the game, with the question mark being the defense.
There was no questioning Sacramento’s familiarity with big games and behind 33 points from Bibby they stole Game 1 in Minnesota, with Garnett struggling to a 6-for-21 night. Minnesota came back in Game 2 and used their defensive edge, holding Sacramento to 36 percent from the floor, withstanding a third-quarter surge and evening up the series with a 94-89 win.
Minnesota still needed to get a win in northern California though, and Game 3 would prove to be an epic battle. The Timberwolves led by ten after three quarters, but the Kings rallied and forced overtime. Stojakovich knocked down 29 points, but Garnett had 30, while Sprewell scored 25 and Minnesota’s 114-113 win reclaimed homecourt advantage and became the most important win in franchise history.
Webber had been silent through the first three games, but the power forward came through with a 28-point night in Game 4 that tied the series 2-2. Homecourt reigned supreme the next two games, with Minnesota playing lockdown defense in an 86-74 game win. Sacramento countered with a 33-14 second-quarter run in Game 6 that forced a decisive seventh game back in the Twin Cities.
It could have been Minnesota’s worst nightmare—Sacramento hit from long-range, going 8-for-19 from behind the arc, with an unexpected big night from Doug Christie who scored 21 points. Normally that’s the kind of X-factor that spells upset. But Cassell, who’d been relatively quiet since his monster game to open the playoffs. And Garnett looked like the league’s MVP, with a 32/21 night and Minnesota prevailed 83-80. They were on their way to the conference finals.
The run ended here against Los Angeles, and even though Minnesota was the higher seed and had success against the Lakers in the regular season, it was no surprise. Los Angeles not only had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, but they’d brought in Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Each had been a star elsewhere in the Western Conference, Payton with Seattle and Malone with Utah. They got a win in Game 1, and while Minnesota would win Games 2 & 5 at home, they were unable to go on the road and reclaim homecourt, losing Games 3, 4 & 6 and with it the series.
What was more surprising is that Minnesota not only didn’t build on this success, but they completely disintegrating. Despite all his success, Saunders was fired when the team was struggling at 25-26 the following year. Minnesota has never made the playoffs since.
Saunders latched on with Detroit, the team who ultimately vanquished the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. Saunders had success with the Pistons, but no title—he lost to Cleveland in 2007 at the hands of LeBron James’ epic 48 Special and to Boston in 2008, when the Celtics rebuilt their franchise around a trade for Garnett.
Both the coach and the franchise hit their high point in the spring of 2004, when, for a brief moment, Minnesota was really relevant on the NBA stage.