Before he played in Game 7 of the 2003-04 Western Conference semifinals against the Sacramento Kings, Kevin Garnett was well-aware of the reputation that preceded him.
While this season wouldn’t end with an eighth consecutive first-round elimination, Garnett was once again facing the prospect of another early playoff exit.
It didn’t matter that Garnett’s Minnesota Timberwolves teams were always less talented than their opponents. During those seven playoff series losses, Garnett lost to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant; Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Steve Nash; and Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
It also didn’t matter that Garnett, in his seventh consecutive first-round playoff exit—a six-game series loss to the Lakers—had played 44.2 minutes per game and averaged 27.0 points, 15.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks. Even though he had given the Timberwolves a fighting chance in every playoff series, Garnett knew how his career was being defined.
“It weighed a lot on me,” Garnett told B/R. “The fact that I couldn’t get out of the first round was a testament to me. I took that really personally. Every summer you come back and think, ‘This is it. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to find a way.’ And it never happened.”
After seven straight playoff appearances, the Timberwolves seemingly had reached a ceiling with Garnett as their centerpiece. That led vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale to acquire Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell via trade in the summer of 2003. Cassell was part of two championship teams in Houston, while Sprewell had helped lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999.
“Latrell and Sam made basketball fun again,” Garnett said.
When Cassell joined his new team, he saw in Garnett a franchise player who was determined to deliver a successful postseason run for the city of Minneapolis. Cassell gave his new teammate a simple message.
MATTHEW CRAIG/Associated Press/Associated Press
“I told him he had to enjoy it,” Cassell said. “I knew how much fun Hakeem Olajuwon had in Houston. KG was an intense guy. The minute he walked into the arena, it was all business. I just got him to smile a little bit before the game. Once he knew I was cheerful and playful before the game but dead serious when it was time to play, I think it relaxed him to where he could make a mistake and he wouldn’t have the world on his shoulders.”
As training camp got underway for the 2003-04 season, the new-look Timberwolves quickly developed a camaraderie off the court. Trenton Hassell had spent his first two seasons in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls. He joined the T-Wolves in the offseason to become their go-to perimeter defender.
“It was a special group,” Hassell said. “I’ve never played with a team that was that close. We were there for each other, on and off the court. We talked a lot about just life with each other. A lot of guys just bonded because they had similarities, not just in their basketball career but in everyday life.”
However, the Timberwolves had an 9-8 record in late November. Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell had not jelled on the court as expected, so head coach Flip Saunders called a meeting with his three best players and delivered his own simple message. He asked them to hold each other accountable on the court and lead the team together.
“He sat us down and said, ‘If Sam takes a bad shot, Kevin, you have the right to say something, and vice versa,'” Cassell said. “Once we had that meeting, the four of us just started laughing because we knew it was true. It was very true.”
The meeting helped settle the three stars’ on-court dynamic. The team took off from there, winning nine of its next 10 games. Minnesota would go 35-9 in the 44 games after that meeting of the minds, and it went more than three months without losing consecutive games.
Garnett averaged 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.2 blocks that season and was named Most Valuable Player. Cassell averaged 19.8 points and 7.3 assists. Sprewell averaged 16.8 points. The T-Wolves finished with 58 wins, the best record in the Western Conference.
Minnesota’s recent playoff futility might have loomed over previous iterations of the squad, but the 2003-04 Timberwolves entered the postseason with much loftier goals.
“I knew we had a great chance to win a championship,” Cassell said.
The T-Wolves proved that by eliminating the Denver Nuggets in five games in the first round. But they ran into a formidable second-round opponent in the Kings, who won Game 6 at home by 17 points to force a decisive Game 7 in Minnesota.
Once again, the spotlight was on Garnett to deliver.
Jim Mone/Associated Press
All of the headlines before Game 7 centered on an incident in Game 6, when Anthony Peeler delivered a elbow to the face of Garnett. Peeler was suspended for Game 7. Meanwhile, Garnett delivered one of his most memorable quotes in the lead-up to the decisive game, weaving in multiple weapons references to describe how he was mentally ready to go to war.
While Garnett’s intensity seemed excessive to outsiders, teammates saw it differently.
“I always thought it was over the top,” Hassell said. “But when I became his teammate, I realized that’s just who he was. He played with his heart, his emotions and his feelings every time he went out there. Even in practice, he played with the same intensity.”
Cassell saw someone who cared about the game more than anyone else.
“If you find one teammate that he ever played with who said that he wasn’t a great teammate, I want to know his name,” Cassell said. “He is that great of a teammate. He cares. He wants you to be successful.”
Garnett washed away years of playoff frustration and shortcomings in Game 7 against the Kings. He scored 32 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and added four steals and five blocks to lead the Timberwolves to an 83-80 win and the franchise’s first appearance in the conference finals.
“He put the team and the city on his back,” Hassell said.
Today, Garnett remembers two things from the game. The first was his postgame celebration, when he jumped on the scorer’s table, pumped his fist multiple times and let out a huge exhale. The second was just how naturally the game came to him that day.
“For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t thinking,” Garnett said. “I was just reacting. I could see everything. Everything was clear to me.”
Minnesota’s playoff run would come to an end in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, who were led by O’Neal and Bryant and had added Karl Malone and Gary Payton in the offseason. Cassell suffered a hip injury while celebrating a three-pointer in Game 7 against the Kings, which lingered and limited him to just 64 minutes over four games against the Lakers. Backup guard Troy Hudson was also out with an injury, which left Darrick Martin as the only point guard on the team’s roster.
“We were there, man,” Cassell said. “We were there. Unfortunately, I got hurt.”
After Minnesota fell behind 3-1 in the series, the Lakers finished off the T-Wolves in Game 6, when Kareem Rush came off the bench to hit six three-pointers and clinch the series.
“If we had the full team,” Hassell said, “we would have been in the Finals.”
“I know we would have beaten the Lakers that year,” Cassell added. “I know because I watched Detroit beat them in the NBA Finals, and they just ran the high pick-and-roll. It was Chauncey Billups’ coming-out party. Every time I watch the highlights for that series, I’m just like, ‘Wow, that could have been us versus Detroit.'”
The trio of Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell ended up making only a one-year run. The following year, the T-Wolves fired Flip Saunders after a 25-26 start and missed the playoffs by one game. In the summer of 2005, Minnesota traded Cassell to the Clippers, and Sprewell didn’t return as a free agent. The team traded Garnett to the Celtics in 2007.
While Garnett would go on to win a championship in Boston in 2008, the brief taste of contending for a championship in Minnesota does make him wonder: How different would his career have been had been surrounded him earlier with the right supporting cast?
“I look at my whole career,” Garnett said, “and I look at those times and say to myself, ‘Man, if I had gotten Sam and Latrell and everyone [on that team] earlier, what could have been, you know?
“At the same time, they gave me the insight and the veteran leadership when I needed it. I think I needed to be around their greatness. I needed to be around their leadership. I needed to be around them in order to be better. That team helped me grow up and mature.”
So, does Garnett—like his teammates—also believe the Timberwolves would have won a championship that year if Cassell was healthy?
“I think so,” he said.
Provided Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Co. beat the Denver Nuggets at home Wednesday night to clinch the final playoff spot in the West, that mission will soon fall on their shoulders.