For Garnett, jewelry has a nice ring to it

ON THE NBA

February 08, 2004|By MILTON KENT

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kevin Garnett's mantelpiece, likely already loaded with plaques and trophies, might get more crowded since he has won NBA Western Conference Player of the Month the past two months. And the early thought is that he'll need to clear more space for the league Most Valuable Player trophy at season's end.

But Garnett would rather get some jewelry for himself -- beyond the diamond earring he wears -- and for his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates, and he feels closer to it than ever before.

"I didn't even know [about Player of the Month] until my girl told me," Garnett said. "I could care less about that. I'm trying to get us to the Promised Land.

"It's a great accomplishment to be Player of the Month, and it's not easy knowing how many great players we have in this league and so many talented players that can do so many different things. From that perspective, it's a compliment. But the goal is much bigger than individual."

That goal, for Garnett and the Timberwolves, is to win a playoff series and then see where things go. Minnesota has advanced to the postseason seven straight seasons, only to be bounced out in the first round each year.

After last year's exit at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kevin McHale, Minnesota's vice president of basketball operations, and Flip Saunders, the coach and general manager, made big changes.

Saunders and McHale traded for forward Latrell Sprewell and point guard Sam Cassell (Dunbar), who was selected to next Sunday's All Star Game as a Western reserve.

In addition, the bench was bolstered with the signings of guard Fred Hoiberg from the Chicago Bulls and forward Mark Madsen from the Los Angeles Lakers. The payoff has the Timberwolves in first place in the Midwest Division, the toughest in the NBA, and nipping at the heels of the Sacramento Kings, who have the league's best record.

While Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell are the highest-scoring trio in the NBA, Garnett credits the Timberwolves' reserves for holding up their end of the bargain.

"In the past, certain guys coming off the bench thought they should be starting and made a fuss about it, starting stupid stuff," said Garnett, last season's MVP runner-up. "We have more of a grasp of a team here this year. Guys coming off the bench are not only excited to play, but understand their role and come in with that excitement and try to give us an energetic lift. These guys understand their roles and try to fulfill them."

Whether the reserves get championship rings with Garnett at season's end is still up for grabs, but their chances look better than ever before.

Quiz

Cassell's selection as a reserve to the Western Conference All-Star squad makes him the fourth Baltimore native to participate in the midseason classic. Reggie Lewis (Dunbar) was an Eastern reserve in 1992 from the Boston Celtics. Can you name the other two Charm City denizens to be so honored?

Van Gundy vs. Francis

Believe it or not, there was another controversy in Houston related to the Super Bowl, and while the Janet Jackson flap got more headlines, the scrape between Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and point guard Steve Francis has the potential to be explosive.

Francis, the Rockets' leading scorer, was suspended by Van Gundy for missing the team's flight to Phoenix last Sunday for a game the next day. Francis' agent said the former Maryland star had a family emergency.

Van Gundy, meanwhile, said Francis told him that he had gone to the Super Bowl. Francis disputed that, contending that his home's surveillance camera would bear out that he hadn't left the house. Francis later added that he had offered to take a chartered plane to Phoenix, but Van Gundy told him to stay home.

"I didn't go to the Super Bowl," Francis told the Houston Chronicle. "I'm not even going to get into he said/she said between me and my coach, because that's not going to get me anywhere.

"The Houston Chronicle did a survey which said that I was considered one of the most popular athletes in Houston, so I'm pretty sure somebody would have seen me if I was there. It's just something that happened. I'm not looking to make anybody look bad."

The incident threatens to re-open wounds that theoretically had been closed when Van Gundy took over in the offseason and installed a slow-it-down half-court offense that looks to punch the ball inside to center Yao Ming rather than allow Francis to freelance.

"You don't turn things like this into a positive," Van Gundy told the Chronicle. "You make the best of the situation. There's nothing positive from having to suspend your best player. Through the meeting we had, it was a great chance to clear the air. Steve and I will be fine, and we'll have disagreements. I don't think there is any doubt he feels at times that maybe I'm a bit too stern."

Quiz answer

Charley Eckman coached the Western All-Stars in 1955 and 1956. Gene Shue not only played in five games, but he also coached the Eastern team in the 1969 contest, the only NBA All-Star Game played in Baltimore.

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