Assessing the Timberwolves’ early playoff runs is difficult. While the Wolves made the playoffs eight-consecutive seasons beginning in 1997, the team was bounced in the first round each time until 2004. This caused no shortage of disappointment for the team’s early adopters.
In retrospect, holding the Wolves’ playoff shortcomings against them was somewhat unreasonable. The Wolves were young underdogs that faced veteran teams still in their window of contention. Let’s revisit.
- Their first playoff series was against Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Scottie Pippen in which they were swept in three games as the sixth seed.
- In 1998, they had a 2-1 series lead against Gary Payton’s Sonics but lost in Game 4 and 5. This is the series they should have won.
- When 1999 rolled around, the eighth-seeded Wolves drew the David Robinson and Tim Duncan Spurs. These teams would meet a couple years later but the Wolves dropped both series 3-1.
The Wolves had another tall order on their hands in 2000 when they matched up with the Portland Trail Blazers in a 3-6 matchup. These Blazers had a good mix of productive veterans and up-and-coming talent.
To pair with Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, and Detlef Schrempf, the Blazers had young Damon Stoudamire, Rasheed Wallace, and Jermaine O’Neal before he was a regular rotation player. Portland’s complementary players like Steve Smith, Greg Anthony, and Brian Grant gave them depth and flexibility.
Of course, any Wolves unit with Kevin Garnett was usually effective. Rasho Nesterovic started in place of Dean Garrett. Terrell Brandon, Malik Sealy, and Wally Szczerbiak rounded out the rest of the starters. Anthony Peeler, Bobby Jackson, and Joe Smith provided support off the bench.
Watching these 20-year-old games is always a trip. The way offenses were run is vastly different. Do you want to see Arvydas Sabonis and Kevin Garnett take 21-foot jumpers? Because that was acceptable at the time. Now, click the link and watch along if you wish.
The Wolves ended the first quarter trailing 33-22 despite shooting 50 percent from the field. Sure, scoring more than 22 points in a quarter is a great idea but Pippen proved to be a problem. Young Szczerbiak was no match for the veteran forward who used to practice with Michael Jordan for a decade.
Pippen began the game with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. The broadcasters remarked how Pippen had conserved his energy in the regular season for the playoffs. It was clear that at 34 years old, Pippen could still give opponents fits. Pippen will finish with 28 points and nine rebounds, including shooting 3-for-5 on 3-pointers.
What’s remarkable is how well this Wolves team is able to hang with the Blazers as the underdog. Since Garnett and Nesterovic shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field, the pressure fell on their teammates to pick up the slack.
Sealy, Brandon, and Szczerbiak provided good offensive support for the starters. The Timberwolves’ bench shot 9-of-14, though 3-point specialist Anthony Peeler inexplicably took just one shot from beyond the arc.
While the Wolves would lose this game 91-88, the broadcast said the Wolves were 20-0 in regular season when leading after three quarters on the road. So what happens? The Timberwolves score four points first six minutes of the fourth. That’s just not going to cut it in the playoffs. Had the Blazers started the fourth quarter so poorly, they likely would have lost too.
This is a game the Wolves should have won. After starting the game shooting 65 percent, the Blazers shot 31.3 percent in the second quarter and 41.2 percent in the third quarter. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when Portland went 6-for-12 from the field that they got back on track.
Despite his poor shooting, Garnett grabbed 10 rebounds and 11 assists. Garnett was often unfairly criticized for these playoff shortcomings. This man put up a triple-double despite being the focal point of the opposing defense. In fact, Garnett and Brandon accounted for 23 of the the Wolves’ 29 assists.
A big reason the Wolves lost this series is because of how successful the Blazers were in limiting Garnett’s damage. Garnett averaged 18.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 38.5 percent from the field.
Despite his poor shooting, Garnett would lead the team in attempts for the series. While more offense from him would have been great, he found other ways to help the team in a closely-contested series. Let’s be clear, Garnett did not shrink from the moment here.
The 3-point disparity was also interesting in this game. Minnesota shot 1-of-8 from deep compared to Portland’s 8-for-18. Just two or three attempts really could have swung this game in the Wolves’ favor.
While the Wolves would go on to lose this series, this was a competitive matchup. Each game was decided by eight points or less. The Wolves would narrowly lose again 86-82 in Game 2 before beating the Blazers 94-87 at home in Game 3. Decisive Game 4 at Target Center saw the Wolves lose 85-77 in a game they shot just 35 percent from the field.
Alas, the Wolves would have to wait a few more years for their first playoff series victory.