As we continue to celebrate Kevin Garnett this week after he was recently selected as part of the 2020 Naismith Hall of Fame class, our guy Derek James is flashing back to some of KG’s most memorable moments. Yesterday, Derek looked a few of the best battles between The Big Ticket and another 2020 Hall of Fame inductee (Tim Duncan), and today the spotlight is on another premier battle of the bigs — KG vs. Dirk Nowitzki.
April 12 will officially mark the 18th anniversary of when the Minnesota Timberwolves battled the Dallas Mavericks in the 2002 NBA playoffs. While this isn’t the most memorable playoff series in team history, it still presented an opportunity for two of the league’s premier bigs to square off as both were just beginning to enter their relative primes.
While the Wolves were quickly bounced in the first round after getting swept 3-0 by the higher-seeded Mavs, that doesn’t make the matchup between the Mavs and Wolves any less interesting. These two teams had become perennial playoff contenders in the West and split the season series. The Wolves even won a game in Dallas that season without Garnett.
The first round series pitted the 4th and 5th seeds in the West, which was repeated several times throughout the TV broadcast (the announcers made it a priority to mention that the Wolves felt they had a real chance in this series, despite never advancing past the first round in franchise history). While the Wolves technically did have a shot, they were simply over-matched against a really strong Mavericks team.
Aside from prime Dirk Nowitzki, the 2002 Mavericks had Steve Nash and Michael Finley. Just six weeks before this series, Dallas bolstered their roster by trading for Raef Lafrentz and Nick Van Exel. Coach Don Nelson knew how to deploy them, as the Mavericks shot the second-most 3-pointers per game (20.8) and were the third-most efficient. Nelson also utilized two point guard lineups with Nash and Van Exel, well before it was cool to do so. This resulted in Dallas being able to play four ball-handlers at the same time, which became a real problem for the Wolves to defend.
What was interesting was how often P.J. Carlesimo discussed Nash’s health on the broadcast. If you’ll remember, Nash discussed how fatigued he was entering certain playoff runs, including this one with the Mavs. At times, you can really see he’s a step slow, but being the star that he was, he eventually found ways to get up to speed.
As for the Timberwolves, Chauncey Billups was starting in place of the injured Terrell Brandon, who was lost for the season due to injury. Robert Pack was a capable backup point guard but you’d much rather have Brandon and Billups than Billups and Pack. Wally Szczerbiak, Sam Mitchell, Garnett, and Rasho Nesterovic rounded out the starting five.
Mitchell was in the starting lineup to match up with Nowitzki and Eduardo Najera for Dallas against Garnett. When Gary Trent replaced Mitchell, Garnett did guard Nowitzki. In all likelihood, this helped avoid having Garnett chase Nowitzki around the perimeter for 45 minutes and take on the opponent’s best rebounder at the same time.
While both of these teams could light up the scoreboard, the first few minutes involved both teams simply feeling each other out. The Timberwolves did use this to their advantage, outscoring the Mavs 31-22 in the first quarter.
While the Wolves were opportunistic in the first quarter and were able to get Billups and Nesterovic going, the second quarter was an utter disaster. After Anthony Peeler’s bucket at 10:36, the Wolves didn’t get another field goal until the five-minute mark. The Mavericks used a 10-0 run to take their first lead of the game. Minnesota scored just 16 points on 5-for-21 shooting in the second quarter. The Wolves were going to need even more from Garnett despite his 2-for-9 shooting and eight points and six rebounds.
This was no easy task as Garnett was hounded every time he touched the ball. Garnett saw double and even triple teams all game long. Even when he got single coverage, Najera, Lafrentz, or whoever the Mavs threw at KG did what they could to swipe the ball from him or alter his shot. However, this was no reason not to run the ball through Garnett as many times as possible.
Things weren’t much easier for Nowitzki, who had 20 points and seven rebounds at the half. The Wolves’ defense did a good job keeping Nowitzki off the 3-point line and forcing him to cut and drive to the basket. Each shot of Nowitzki’s, like Garnett’s, was met with a lot of contact. There were no easy buckets for either star in this game (or in this series).
In the third quarter, the Wolves rediscovered their offensive magic, outscoring the Mavericks 26-23 in the quarter. An 8-0 scoring run to end the quarter punctuated their strong play and the teams were tied at 73 entering the final quarter.
While the Wolves played well in the fourth, the nine turnovers killed their chances in this game. Big shots by Nowitzki and Finley late sealed Dallas’ 101-94 victory. The Wolves could have survived a bad quarter or a few too many turnovers, but not the combination of both. Having one timeout for the final 10 minutes was not ideal, either.
As mentioned previously, the Wolves were ultimately swept 3-0 in this series. Garnett averaged 24 points, 18.7 rebounds, and five assists. Sure, he shot 42.9 percent from the field, but he was the sole focal point of the Mavericks’ defensive strategy every single time he touched the ball. As for his own defense, KG still found a way to swipe 1.7 blocks/steals per game, while also attempting to carry his teammates on the offensive end.
What ultimately destroyed the Wolves in this series was that outside of Billups and Szczerbiak, there was not enough offensive firepower. Billups averaged 22-5-6 in this series on 45 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. Szczerbiak’s 20 points and seven rebounds per game were also helpful. However, Rasho Nesterovic was the next most productive player on the team. In the end, the Wolves desperately needed more help from guys like Peeler, Joe Smith, and Gary Trent, but it never came.
It’s not that hard to imagine how a healthy Terrell Brandon doesn’t make this series a lot closer, especially when you consider the Mavs won each of the next two games by double digits. As for the victors, Nowitzki averaged 33.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, and connected on 8-of-11 3’s in the series. Finley and Nash also averaged over 20 points per game while shooting lights out on 3-pointers. In the end, it was just too much “Nellie Ball” for the Wolves to handle, as the Mavs had five players shoot 35 percent or better from beyond the arc over the three game stretch.
After this series, Dallas would go on to lose 4-1 to Sacramento in the next round while the Wolves would attempt to retool for the following season. Mitchell retired at age 38, and the team brought in both Kendall Gill and Troy Hudson in free agency.
What do you think? You can watch Game 1 for yourself here and leave your thoughts below.