ATLANTA - A footnote, an afterthought to July's Kevin Garnett trade, new Timberwolves center Theo Ratliff has demonstrated across Europe and the American South recently that his surgically repaired back has healed and, at age 34, he still possesses the instincts that twice made him the NBA's blocked-shot leader.
A crucial component to the summer's blockbuster deal solely because of his expiring $11.66 million contract, Ratliff, his body willing, looks like opening night's starting center two weeks hence.
The Wolves have proven themselves turnover-prone and predictably inconsistent in a three-country barnstorming tour that left them 0-3 against NBA opponents after Tuesday's 103-77 loss at Atlanta. They also appear considerably taller and more athletic, two qualities that have coach Randy Wittman thinking this remade Wolves team might be unlike any other, even considering the presence Garnett provided for 12 seasons in Minnesota.
"We have guys who can block shots," he said, referring to, among others, Ratliff, Al Jefferson, Chris Richard and Corey Brewer. "And that's something we really haven't had here in a number of years. A guy like Theo gives us a presence we've never had."
Ratliff provides what he calls a "mind-set" he has nurtured since junior high school, when his coach told him he could be among the few committed to making defense the priority.
"It's something I've done all my career, as long as my health and my strength is there," said Ratliff, who led the league four seasons ago with a 3.61 average and has averaged 2.6 blocks in his 12-year NBA career.
"I've always been able to be that intimidator down low. Ever since my coach told me everybody wants to be the offensive guy, I've always watched the great defenders -- [Dennis] Rodman, [David] Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon -- and tried to pattern myself after them to be a difference maker on the defensive end."
Ratliff played only two games for Boston last season and had season-ending surgery in January. He worked hard in Boston with trainers all summer and declared himself healthy when he arrived in Minneapolis just after the Garnett trade.
But even Wittman didn't know what to expect from Ratliff when training camp opened three weeks ago.
"I don't think anybody did," Wittman said. "He has been telling me since the trade that he was healthy and feeling good, and so far that's come true."
Ratliff has recovered from a hip surgery, a knee surgery and now back surgery -- "Knock on wood," Wittman said -- in his career. Ratliff did not play in Tuesday's game, the second half of back-to-back games after he had four blocked shots and helped harass Grizzlies star Pau Gasol into a 1-for-9 shooting night in 20 minutes Monday in Memphis.
"I know with every injury I've had, I've always come back and tried to be better than I was before," said Ratliff, who returned to Atlanta, where he played for two seasons and still owns a home in its Buckhead district. "It just takes work to do that. I still enjoy playing the game. I still get excited playing the game. When you get a good one [blocked shot] and you can start a fast break where your team goes down and scores, that's a very exciting part."