I'm a Jordan-era NBA guy. Meaning, while I was around and paid some attention to Magic and Bird, the last legs of Dr. J., the Chief and McHale, Sir Charles in Philly, and the Human Highlight Reel, I didn't REALLY get into basketball until the late 80's when (finally) the Minnesota Timberwolves were born. TWolves fans back in '89 and the early 90's were just happy to have a team — and players like Doug West, Pooh Richardson, Isaiah J.R. Rider, Tony Campbell, Chuck Person and Christian Laettner (happy is a relative term for a couple of those guys).
When the Wolves came into the league, the airwaves (we didn't have Pandora or Spotify or whatever technological music marvel I'm not clued in about yet) were ruled by Poison, Warrant, Roxette, Fine Young Cannibals, Paula Abdul, and Bobby Brown before he started hitting Whitney. Also, side note: Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings peaked at #7. That is how much music sucked in 1989. Bette fucking Midler. If you don't know who she is, don't look her up.
When the Wolves drafted Garnett, then traded for Marbury and Gugliotta — as well as started acquiring saavy veterans like Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter — in the mid-90's, especially when the Timberwolves got their first playoff birth in 1997, there was a huge difference in style (and relative power) in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
So, between Bette Midler and Jewell (in 1997), hair metal died, grunge lived and died, and, hey, so did Princess Diana leading to arguably the worst #1 song in the history of #1 songs, Elton John's Candle in the Wind (1997). It was a time of utterly forgettable R&B songs topping the charts and terrible pop songs. The in-between music from the genesis of the Wolves to their first playoff appearance was pretty great, actually. Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Dada, and more. But, in 1997, the #1 song was a tribute to Princess Di that changed a few words in a 20-year-old song. It was a dark time for music, but an exciting time to be a Wolves fan.
By the way, here's the video to that fine tune for your enjoyment!
In the West in 1997, there were several teams that should have been powerhouses. The Rockets, having won back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995 and adding Charles Barkley, were getting older, yet were still a power to be feared. But, there was still Portland (a very good team featuring Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Kenny Anderson, and Cliff Robinson), the Sonics (Payton, Schrempf, Kemp before too many burgers and kids), the resurgent Lakers with Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell and Shaq (and Kobe though it took awhile for them to co-exist), and, of course, the Utah Jazz (Stockton to the Mailman, Jeff Hornacek, etc.). The post-Barkley Suns were in the mix too, with Jason Kidd and Rex Chapman.
The East was still dominated by the Bulls in the MJ post-retirement/comeback era. But there was an intriguing mix of "what if" teams over there. The Heat — with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. The Knicks — Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Allan Houston and Charles Oakley. The Charlotte Hornets with Glen Rice, Anthony Mason, and Vlade Divac. And, the Washington Bullets, featuring Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and the underrated Rod Strickland. We'll forget about post-Shaq Magic as they had Penny and the pieces they surrounded Shaq with (Dennis Anderson, etc.), which meant they pretty much had Penny (until injury took away years of his career). And, last, and nearly least, the Atlanta Hawks with Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, our guy Christian, and we even get a Ty Corbin appearance.
Anyway, given the sort of 1990's throwback fell in many ways of the Knicks and Pacers — and the fact that the Wolves are again on the outside of the playoffs looking in — I thought it's be fun to take a look at the 1997 playoffs by division and round, starting with the Wolves and the Western Conference. And, I'll include a wonderful song from 1997 to help describe the series (it's hard to believe the music of 1997 was worse than the music of 1989, but the evidence is irrefutable).
If people dig it, I'll do more. If not, I won't.
In the West, the first round series were:
Utah Jazz (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (8) - The Jazz handled the Clippers rather handily. They won the series 3-0 (remember it was best of five first rounds back then), and only one game was less than a double-digit win for them (Game 2, which was 105-99). Loy Vaught carried the Clippers, averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds, while Malik Sealy and Brent Barry each kicked in about 12. The Jazz simply overpowered them. Malone averaged 30.7 points and 11.3 rebounds in the series. Stockton averaged 11.3 assists and over 14 points. I recall Game 2 of this series and it always felt like the Clippers were on the verge of taking it, then a pick-and-roll later you'd remember why the Jazz were the #1 seed. 1997 song that described this series:
Seattle Supersonics (2) vs. Phoenix Suns (7) - This was the only series to go to five games, with Seattle winning Game Five in a blowout, 116-92. Gary Payton averaged over 25 and Shawn Kemp was a force on the boards, averaging 14.5 rebounds. Phoenix won games 1 and 3, with the Sonics capturing 2, 4, and 5. Remember, this was the post-Barkley era in Phoenix, and though they had talent, they weren't a match for the Sonics. Rex Chapman and Kevin Johnson handled the bulk of the scoring, and Jason Kidd had 10 dimes a game. Phoenix took a pounding on the glass.
That Seattle squad is still a mystery to me. They had a tough time with the Jazz being a powerhouse in the later 90's and the Rockets in the mid-90s, but that was an incredibly talented, and well-rounded squad. Too talented and well-rounded to to get to the Finals more often.
Los Angeles Lakers (4) vs. Portland Trailblazers (5) - This one went LA's way 3-1. I honestly don't remember much about this series. Suffice to say, Shaq averaged 33 points and 9.3 boards and Elden Campbell put up nearly 17 a game. For the Blazers, it was more balanced scoring with five players averaging above ten and Rasheed had over 19 per game. Mmmbop, nothing to see here.
Side note: Clifford Robinson played 18 years in the NBA until he was 40. I knew he had a prolific career, but I had forgotten he'd been drafted in 1989. In the second round. Second round picks — who needs 'em?
Houston Rockets (3) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (6) - I do remember this series quite well. In the regular season, Houston dominated the Wolves, winning all six games against them.
Something about the Wolves that rubbed the Rockets — especially Kevin Willis and Sir Charles — the wrong way. Game 1 was a game to forget. Garnett gets hit in the throat by Kevin Willis (more on the retribution to that in Game 2 recap), the Wolves shot 43 percent as a team, they were out rebounded by 22 boards (9 more on the offensive side), and they were never really in it. Going into the 4th, the Wolves trailed 88-65. Garnett had 21 and Steph had 28. Gugliotta was the only other player in double figures.
They did put up a good fight in Game 2, trailing only 66-65, but a 30 point 4th quarter to the Wolves' 19 sealed the deal for the Rockets. This was also the game where Sam Mitchell crushed Kevin Willis on a breakaway dunk attempt and was ejected. In both Game 1 and 2, Willis was extra physical and Barkley was trash talking. I wish I could find a video or GIF of it, as that foul was absolutely vicious. I love Sam's quote about Willis, "I'm not a punching bag," Mitchell said. "He thinks this is the wild, wild West. I wasn't surprised at the (ejection), but what else am I supposed to take."
Game 3 was the closest (a 125-120 that was tied at at 59 at the half and 91 going into the 4th quarter). The Rockets had three players with 20 points (Maloney, Mario Ellie and Barkley) and Olajuwan and Drexler added 19 and 17 respectively. For the Wolves, Dean Garrett was thriving on easy buckets, dropping in 26. Gugliotta was hot, with 27 points and he was 3 for 4 from behind the arc.
Thinking back on the music on the time, this is what I came up with to sum up my feelings about that series. But, since I can't bear to link to the original R. Kelly song, here's a good version of it:
This was truly the beginning of something great. The Wolves had a PG/PF/SF combination that was young, good and filled with potential. They had a strong veteran presence on the bench. The sky was the limit. Or, so we all thought...
Up next, Eastern Conference Round One (maybe).
Also, found this Spanish-speaking wrap-up of Game 2 of the Rockets and Wolves. Enjoy!