Hartman: Saunders helps KG, Celtics in playoff run

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2012 - 12:02 PM

Boston coach Doc Rivers brought in the former Wolves coach as "another set of eyes" to assist him.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Times published an article on former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders' involvement with the Boston Celtics coaching staff during the playoffs. Celtics coach Doc Rivers brought in Saunders as an adviser for the team's postseason run, which would move into the NBA Finals if the Celtics can defeat Miami on Thursday night.

The former Gophers player and assistant coach told the Times:

"Me and Doc, we've known each other a long time. ... He asked me to come in and just kind of be another set of eyes. I watch games and give him perspective on what I see [the Celtics] doing, and what I see the other team doing, and give him an idea of what I would do. He's given me a great opportunity."

Saunders has enjoyed his reunion with former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett, who is having a tremendous postseason for Boston. Garnett is averaging 21.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, including a team-high 26 points in Boston's 94-90 Game Five victory Tuesday.

A headline in Wednesday's Boston Globe read "Garnett as Good as Ever," and you can give Saunders a lot of credit for developing Garnett. The 14-time NBA All-Star kept his good relationship with Saunders even after the coach was fired by the Wolves and later resurfaced in Detroit and Washington.

"The biggest thing is that it's nice to see him playing at the level he is playing," Saunders said about Garnett. "For me, it is nice to be back in a situation where it's how it was 10 years ago in seeing how he acts and how he prepares. I told Kevin, 'It's like being a proud father,' just to see how he's progressed."

Saunders also recently spoke about how pleased he was that the Wizards have decided to retain former Timberwolves head coach Randy Wittman for next season. Saunders hired Wittman as an assistant at Washington and also hired several of the assistant coaches who will remain on the staff.

One of those coaches is Flip's son, Ryan, who worked under Tubby Smith and the Gophers before joining his father in Washington.

Firing hurt Wolves

If you look back and try to track down when the Timberwolves went in the tank, it was the day in 2005 when Saunders was fired.

I've had my share of predictions come true, maybe more than have been inaccurate. But on the day Saunders was fired, local sports nut Marty Davis and a group of his friends and myself were busing back from Ames, Iowa, where we had gone to watch Bob Knight's then-Texas Tech team play at Iowa State.

The surprising news broke on the bus radio that Saunders was fired. I said then that Joe Smith's illegal contract and the four No. 1 draft choices the Wolves lost hurt the team but the firing of Saunders will hurt them more.

Saunders remains the winningest coach in Timberwolves history, posting a .558 winning percentage over 10 seasons with the club. Since he's left, the team hasn't posted a winning record in any season. (The Wolves did have a winning record in 2004-05, the season he was fired, going 44-38 with Kevin McHale finishing the final 31 games of the season, going 19-12 as head coach.) They've gone 169-383 (.306) since that season.

After the Wolves made it to the Western Conference finals in 2003-04, the rumor was that Saunders was fired during the following season because he had lost control of the team.

Before Saunders took the Wizards' rebuilding job, he had a record of 587-396 with 11 playoff appearances in his 16-year career.

Gophers football news

The Gophers would like to drop the football game scheduled at North Carolina in 2013 and one against the Tar Heels at TCF Bank Stadium the following year and play an extra home game in 2014. But at this late stage, North Carolina can't seem to find a replacement for its home game against the Gophers.

For years, the Rochester Williams Fund fundraiser was the biggest on the University of Minnesota summer circuit before it dropped to near the bottom in attendance. Well, Gophers football coach Jerry Kill changed all that Monday with the biggest crowd in history, and I have attended practically all of them. It looks like there's a lot more Gophers football interest in Rochester.

One of Kill's 2012 recruits is Germantown, Wis., native Ben Holcomb. The safety/wide receiver had a great football season last year, grabbing nine touchdown passes and averaging 23.5 yards per catch. He's also a great track athlete.

Holcomb qualified for the Wisconsin state track championships in the 110- and 300- meter hurdles and the 800 meters. At the state meet, Holcomb hurt his ankle when he crashed into the final hurdle and fell during a 300-meter hurdles preliminary. But the following day, he came back to win the 110 hurdles in a state-best time of 1422 seconds.

"It was disappointing [about the 300s]," Holcomb told GermantownNow. "So I used it as motivation to push myself and win a state title. I shook it off and tried not to think about it too hard. The plan was just to go out there and run a clean race, which I did."

Also at that meet was Gophers basketball recruit Wally Ellenson, who won the high jump for the second consecutive year competing for Rice Lake. Ellenson won the title with a jump of 6 feet, 10 inches, but missed three attempts to clear 7-2, which would have been the best jump in Wisconsin high school history.

Oakes ponders options

Gophers pitcher TJ Oakes spoke to the Minnesota Daily about being drafted in the 11th round by Colorado. He has a year of eligibility remaining at Minnesota if he chooses to use it.

"The [Rockies] scout is going to come out to our house some time this week. We'll try and work something out," Oakes said.

The righthander had much more interest from major league teams after posting a 7-3 record with a 2.31 ERA in 14 starts for the Gophers this year and making the All-Big Ten first team. He was picked by the Twins in the 41st round in the 2011 draft but stayed with the Gophers.

"Last year he had three, four, maybe five teams interested," said his father, Todd Oakes, the Gophers' pitching coach. "This year it's been more like 12, 15, 18."

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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