The first-place Wild will play the Vancouver Canucks tonight in St. Paul. The hockey club will announce that 18,568 tickets were sold and 95 percent of those people actually will be in attendance.

The last-place Timberwolves will open the post-All-Star portion of their schedule tonight by playing Philadelphia at Target Center. The crowd will be announced in the low five figures and that will be generous by 2,000 to 3,000.

NBA interest in the Twin Cities is at its lowest point in the 19 seasons since the league re-emerged here with the expansion Timberwolves in the fall of 1989.

This has been demonstrated not only by the sections of empty seats in the home arena, but also horrendous ratings both for the Wolves' local telecast and the NBA's national events.

As of Monday evening, TNT still had not provided information on its ratings for Sunday night's All-Star Game.

Presumably, the Twin Cities claimed its usual place for the NBA -- in the bottom few among the 56 metered markets. If so, those hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who were involved with other entertainment missed some remarkable athletic prowess.

The first half was a demonstration of layups, lobs and dunks, of course, making it as nonsensical and non-physical as the Pro Bowl or the NHL All-Star Game. This continued for much of the third quarter, and then these two squads filled with immense talent set about trying to win the game.

The West came back from a 16-point deficit and took the lead, only to have Boston's Ray Allen bring back the East with his magnificent shooting for a 134-128 victory.

There were thrills not only for people who understand that NBA stars play their game better than do the stars of any other team sport play theirs, but also for the people with a betting interest.

The most-intriguing number for the All-Star Game is where the over-and-under lands. On Sunday, the betting number was 262 1/2 points and the total finished at 262.

A local fellow who facilitates wagers on athletic contests said: "This is the only game all year in any sport where there's more action on the over-and-under than the winner and loser. Everybody had the over, making it a good night for your neighborhood bookmaker."

The folly of the NBA's indecipherable salary cap also has been on display in recent days. Dallas wants Jason Kidd to fortify its chances against the rugged Western Conference playoff field. New Jersey wants to bring in younger reinforcements with guard Devin Harris and center DeSagana Diop.

Rather than being able to make this sensible two-for-one deal, the Mavericks must get Keith Van Horn to come out of retirement and agree to be available to play for the Nets for the remainder of the season.

All but three teams (Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis) are over the basic number of $55,630,000. That's the number that triggers trade restrictions.

Take the Wolves, with a current cap number of $63 million and change: If they are trying to trade a veteran to another of the 26 teams over the cap, they must take a similar salary in return.

"The rule is 125 percent, plus $100,000," said Jim Stack, the Timberwolves general manager, which means:

If the Wolves found a team interested in Antoine Walker, his salary of $8,547,000 would be the 125 percent number in the deal. That would make $6.7 million (100 percent, minus $100,000) the amount of salary the Wolves must take in return.

Somehow, the NBA has to modify its cap rules so that a bottom-feeder can trade a high-priced veteran for nothing more than prospects and draft choices. A bad team should not be required to involve itself in shams and take on a contender's well-salaried garbage in order to improve its future.

And yet, in spite of these foolish restrictions on player movement, what we saw again Sunday night was that the NBA has the best athletes this country's pro leagues have to offer.

Take just one -- Chris Paul, the New Orleans point guard. Is he something or what?

Oh, excuse me. You're a Twin Citian. You probably weren't watching.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 64:5 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. •