Some familiar, some oh-so-strange

  • Article by: Chuck Culpepper
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • October 10, 2007 - 11:17 PM

LONDON - Near the end of one of your more eccentric NBA nights, a Lithuanian journalist took the microphone in the interview room, informed everyone of his nationality and posed a real stumper to the two Timberwolves seated at the dais.

As helpless as the Wolves had looked in their 92-81 exhibition loss to the Boston Celtics at the O2 Arena, he explained, they certainly could not beat good European teams from, say, Moscow and Tel Aviv.

"No, I'm serious," he said as laughter gathered.

And if they could not beat good European teams from, say, Moscow and Tel Aviv, how did they expect to compete in the NBA?

Well ...

Nine-year NBA guard Ricky Davis, whose dazzling early shooting kept things competitive until that, too, fizzled, gave the global question a gentlemanly whirl.

"Yeah, we played bad," said Davis, the Wolves' scoring leader with 18 points. "Take it for granted that it's the second game of the preseason. Scoring 75, 78 points, it's hard to beat anybody. Hopefully by November 1st, we'll be jelled together and moving like a machine."

So begins a new phase of franchise history since the departure of a certain human skyscraper named Kevin Garnett, and so begins the grind with the young in a league that eats those.

"Defensively, we played a good game, but offensively we still have a lot of work to do," said Juwan Howard, who at 34 -- on a Wolves roster with eight players under 25 -- seems like his birth certificate might have come in hieroglyphics.

Howard does spot hope, however.

"I see a very talented ballclub," he said. "This team has a lot of potential, young guys playing with a lot of spirit."

Good attitude, then.

"I see that in the locker room, yes."

If it's tricky to market good attitude, it's not such a chore to market Garnett, as shown on a night filled with unusual Garnett-related trappings that went beyond even the odd Lithuanian censure.

Seeing stars, on and off the court

Boston warmed up to the sounds of British fans yelling for "Mr. Gahh-nett." Howard and the Celtics' Ray Allen, the former child resident of England who starred with 28 points, walked to the center -- sorry, centre -- of the court before the game to take microphones and welcome the sellout crowd of 18,689. At one point the two mascots frolicked with a rugby ball.

A big roar went up because the large video screens showed ... rookie British Formula One-leading driver Lewis Hamilton, seated courtside. Another time, the screens showed one of the planet's foremost sports stars, the Ivory Coast soccer forward Didier Drogba of the London club Chelsea, and Garnett noticed excitedly. At one point in the second quarter, the NBA introduced, in sequence, former players B.J. Armstrong, Rick Barry and Bill Russell, with Russell getting the greatest ovation in a show of British NBA knowledge.

People came to see Garnett and sighed when traveling calls killed his scoring chances, as happened three times in the third quarter (among six turnovers), except that nobody noticed the third because everybody was doing The Wave.

"It was electrifying," Davis said, overstating but not too much. "That's what we need in the States."Great energy in the building," Garnett said, overstating but not too much.

"I said a couple of times on the bench, 'This is the NBA right here,'" Allen said.

Commissioner David Stern stopped by beforehand to discuss daydreams of European franchises, the 51 NBA TV deals in China alone and his irritation at the New York Times for a headline that said the NBA would do nothing about the lawsuit verdict against the New York Knicks.

Asked how NBA fans can trust referees after the Tim Donaghy matter, Stern said it's only one case and said: "I understand that Jayson Blair lied in his reports in the New York Times. How can I trust you? But I don't say that to the media."

Then, when the game ended, it found its international essence as Garnett rushed over to hug Drogba, later saying they had been trying to see each other play.

"We said, 'How you doing? How you feeling? Been keeping up with you, blah-blah-blah,'" Garnett said.

Which team am I on again?

Most of the night's weirdness did relate to Garnett and the five Wolves players traded for him, including 22-year-old Al Jefferson, who had six points and four rebounds and one very confusing look at the scoreboard.

He looked up in the early going, well before the Celtics broke away late in the second quarter for a 50-43 halftime lead that would become 65-48 soon thereafter.

"And I was like, Minnesota was ahead and Boston was losing," and he thought he'd need to help catch up.

"And I caught myself," he said.

"It was different," Davis said. "Throughout my years playing in the NBA, I would always see [Garnett] in white and blue. It was definitely a different experience seeing Kev in the green."

At one point, Davis admitted, he did almost pass it inside to Garnett. "But then I saw the green," he said.

Former Celtics and new Wolves player Ryan Gomes said he tried to view it as practice, two sides from one team, "but then I'd look down at my uniform ..."

At not many games do you see two teams coming out of a timeout with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left in the first quarter, whereupon a guy on one team (Garnett) hugs two guys on the other team (Randy Foye and Craig Smith) who have just been inserted into the game, but there it was.

"No hard feelings," Garnett said, later adding, "The past is the past."

He cheered his teammates during bench time. He drew up a play once, to help an assistant coach. He argued calls with referees, like when Davis spilled and asked for timeout and Garnett barked, "He didn't call timeout! No he didn't! No, he didn't, Courtney," to referee Courtney Kirkland.

Garnett scored nine points and might have had more than the two assists the statistician gave him in Boston's flowing offense. When things got bottled up, the Celtics fed Allen, who said, "On any given occasion on any given night, anybody can lead this team."

And, with an offense far less formed at this nascent stage, the Wolves seem the opposite, much more the unsure hodgepodge, or, as coach Randy Wittman put it, "I'm pleased with what came out of Turkey and London, but we still have a lot of work to do."

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