Give him his due, but don't mourn his loss

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2008 - 11:17 PM

With KG probably out of the Boston lineup, tonight becomes more like just another Wolves home game. With the way the team's been playing, that's not all bad.

Tonight, Timberwolves fans eager to mourn Kevin Garnett's absence from Target Center might have to do so by mourning Kevin Garnett's absence from the Target Center floor.

KG is expected to be in the building but not in the Boston lineup because of an abdominal strain suffered the last time the Wolves played the Celtics. Garnett either took a shot to the abdomen, or he simply hasn't gotten over the precisely aimed low blow he received from his successor, Al Jefferson, during their heated exchange on the court that night.

Garnett yelled "Eleven years! Eleven years!" at Jefferson, reminding him of his All-Star berths. Jefferson responded with the kind of surgical strike we expect of smart bombs and heckled comedians: "We both have one thing in common -- no championships."

That's when Garnett started throwing elbows and issuing even more than his customary doses of profanity. After the best team in the NBA this regular season beat the worst by one point, Garnett walked around the court popping his jersey as if he had finally won a title.

That was embarrassing. So tonight as all you nostalgic Wolves fans fondly remember the departed superstar, I'll be watching the other team, the team that did what it had to do in trading Garnett, the team that, now that it finally has started competing, has more to offer than its record indicates.

The Garnett trade was great for the Celtics. Even if they flame out in the playoffs, Celtics GM Danny Ainge took a worthwhile gamble to make an important franchise relevant.

The Garnett trade also was great for the Wolves. For all of his mistakes the past 10 years, Wolves VP Kevin McHale has made two excellent deals in a row, deals that make this year's struggling team far more promising than the stagnant Garnett-led teams of the previous two seasons.

In trading Garnett, he landed Jefferson, who is younger, cheaper, a better fourth-quarter scorer, a better offensive rebounder and eager to improve. Jefferson took it to Yao Ming the other night, shooting over him from the outside, faking him off his feet, dunking on him, spinning him like a top with low-post moves that could have been stolen from the movie "The Illusionist."

I'd rather watch Jefferson tonight than even a healthy Garnett, regardless of their team's records.

McHale got two first-round draft picks in the deal, plus point guard Sebastian Telfair, who is, to punish him with faint praise, better than expected, and swingman Ryan Gomes, who, when he asserts himself, displays a fine array of NBA skills.

Center Theo Ratliff is useful when healthy. More important, his salary will come off the books this summer. And Gerald Green was worth a try as a talented but unpolished throw-in.

The next major trade McHale made looks lopsided in his favor. He sent Ricky Davis and Mark Blount to sabotage the Miami Heat, receiving Antoine Walker, a first-round pick, Michael Doleac and Wayne Simien in return.

Trading Davis and Blount for Pat Riley's mousse valet would have been a good deal. Getting Walker -- who is a better teammate and has a shorter contract than Blount -- and a first-round pick and the expiring contracts of Doleac and Simien makes this a steal.

Now that the Wolves are playing defense and finding options to complement Jefferson on offense, this, too, can be said: As lousy as the NBA's reputation is nationally, and especially in this town, many nights there is artistry on the court.

Against Houston, Telfair dribbled from foul line to baseline to the elbow, faked high, then dropped a bounce pass under a defender's armpit to a cutting Jefferson, who maneuvered between two tall defenders to somehow finish at the rim.

It's a beautiful game when played well, and the Wolves finally have improved from unwatchable to intriguing.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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