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Wolves are at the door

They're on threshold of something special

On a recent team flight, Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett had food catered. He passed it around, making sure everyone had something before he did. And you wonder why he's such a valued teammate? "Everyone sees him on the court," says teammate Mark Madsen. "But he's every bit the class act off the court as well. He cares so much about all the guys, from one to 14. The sense I get is that all he wants to do is win. I don't think he cares about any individual accolades."

The Celtics will see Garnett tonight for the second and last time this season. Garnett is the runaway leader for Most Valuable Player, leading the Timberwolves to the top of the tough Midwest Division. As of last night, Garnett was leading the league in rebounding, and was among the top five scorers and the top 10 in blocks and minutes. You could almost make a case that he is having one of those Michael/Magic/Larry years.

"I think it's a lot more like Larry or Magic," said Garnett's boss, Kevin McHale. "Michael was more of a scorer. Kevin scores, but he's a much better basketball player than just a scorer. You look at this guy and he can dominate a game in more than one way. He can dominate at the defensive end. He can dominate on the glass. He can dominate at the offensive end."

And, equally vital, Garnett is the unquestioned el jefe among the players. When McHale recruited Ricky Davis a couple summers ago, he said he read Davis the riot act.

"But one of the reasons I could do that was because I had Kevin backing me up," McHale said.

Madsen recalled Garnett walking around the locker room after a close loss to the Spurs and talking to each player about what he needed to do to improve and what he did well that night.

"When I played against Kevin, I saw him as an unbelievable competitor," Madsen said. "And also someone with a huge heart, a lot of intensity, just fierce. We had some great battles. I'd read and heard how great of a guy he was and how everyone respected him and how he carried himself. And it's all true."

The Wolves are a great story. They've been one-and-out in the playoffs for seven straight years in the brutal Western Conference. McHale added Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, and Michael Olowokandi (and Madsen) over the summer without losing anyone of serious import (unless you count Joe Smith). The result has been a team that has won and won despite injuries to key people (Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson) and is only two games behind Indiana for the best record in the league.

"The important thing," McHale said, "is that we have it together and are playing well when the playoffs start. Especially in this conference. If you're going in playing ratty ball, you won't go too far or last too long."

Roster ramifications It was thought that the US Olympic team members would be named over the All-Star break, but that did not come to pass. And according to a person familiar with the committee's thinking, the process is basically on hold until Garnett makes up his mind. There are nine confirmed spots: Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Jermaine O'Neal, Mike Bibby, Karl Malone, and Kobe Bryant. However, the committee is wondering whether Malone really wants to make another visit to Olympus and whether Kobe's availability will be a problem. So there could be four spots up for grabs. Elton Brand and Vince Carter, who were on the US team that qualified last summer in Puerto Rico, are said to be locks. But who comes after Garnett? The committee is said to be uninterested in Chris Webber or Brad Miller, despite a need for big guys. Ben Wallace would certainly qualify in that category, so he might be a consideration. Whoever signs on is in for a summer of fun and games. The team will open training camp in Jacksonville, Fla., July 26 and spend the next 18 days preparing for the Games, visiting Germany, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkey, and playing six exhibition games. "This is the most competitive pre-event training we've ever undertaken," said Stu Jackson, the NBA's operations czar who oversees the selection process . . . A little bird told me that the Celtics might have been considering moving Davis at the trading deadline. I ran that by Danny Ainge, but he said it would be silly to write such nonsense, so I won't . . . Washington coach Eddie Jordan acknowledges that he wondered how long it would take his young front-line players to become real NBA players. He thinks the guys are seeing the light, although it has been a drawn-out process. "It was like watching grass grow," Jordan said of the trials and tribulations of Kwame Brown, Jared Jeffries, and Brendan Haywood. "Are they ever going to improve? Are they ever going to get it? Are they ever going to be physical? Are they ever going to grow? But then you step away and see [that they have]. This league is all about talent, toughness, and veteran's experience, not young, developing, soft teams." . . . New York high schooler Sebastian Telfair is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That's sure to give him pause about turning pro. There could be a slew of high schoolers taken in the first round -- Ainge was scouting a kid last week who plays for a prep school in Connecticut -- and not all of them are going to be lottery picks. "We got this guy, [Ndudi] Ebi last year," McHale said of the high schooler the Wolves took with the 26th pick. "I told him he should have gone to Arizona, where he could be playing ball and chasing women. But he made the decision to come here, so he needs to put in the work."

Back playing pick-up Just wondering, but do you suppose someone will pick up Ron Mercer? The Spurs waived him before March 1, which means Mercer will be eligible for postseason play. The Spurs were Mercer's sixth team in seven years. Bet you never thought you'd see the day when Mercer would be waived and Walter McCarty would still be employed . . . Speaking of getting waived, the Cavaliers quietly deep-sixed J.R. Bremer last week. His appearance in 64 games last year for a playoff team is one of the many wonders of the 2002-03 Celtics season. The Cavaliers also placed Kedrick Brown on the injured list. After a somewhat promising start in Cleveland (sound familiar?) he has been all but invisible . . . While on the Cavaliers, here's Ainge's take on Carlos Boozer, who is having a terrific season: "He's become not just a great rebounder, but a great mid-range shooter. He's a great steal for a second-round pick." Ainge said he remembered preparing for the 2002 draft when he was working for TNT. "I think people thought he wasn't real long and not a great athlete for his position," Ainge said. "Everything that I researched that year told me that Utah or Orlando would take him in the first round. They ended up taking [Ryan] Humphries and [Curtis] Borchardt. That was a shock to me because the people I talked to in those organizations said to me, `We love Boozer. We hope Orlando doesn't take him. We hope Cleveland doesn't take him.' " Boozer instead tumbled all the way to No. 35. The Cavaliers hold an option on his contract for next season and have indicated a desire to sign Boozer to a long-term deal . . . The Bulls' Eddy Curry was not pleased to see teammate Corie Blount waived, and he wrote Blount's initials and number on his sneakers for Chicago's next game. (Just a wild guess, but I bet that had not happened to Blount before.) Meanwhile, the Bulls may lose restricted free agent Marcus Fizer over the summer. That, anyway, is Fizer's wish. "July 1 is the day I'm shooting for," he said, referring to the first day that free agents can be courted by other teams (wink, wink). "I can't wait. That's like Christmas to me. I won't be in Chicago, I know that." Speculation has Fizer reuniting with Tim Floyd in New Orleans. Floyd coached Fizer in Chicago and also at Iowa State . . . One scenario getting some legs around the league has Jim O'Brien surfacing in Portland when the Blazers allow Mo Cheeks to leave (although he just signed an extension last fall) for Philadelphia. O'Brien, a Philly guy, would be working for general manager John Nash, a Philly guy, and possibly with assistant Jim Lynam, also a Philly guy. The thinking behind this scenario is that Cheeks would rather be in Philadelphia (and that he gets along with Iverson) than stay in Portland. The other scenario involving O'Brien has him going to Orlando, where the GM is another Philly guy, John Gabriel. O'Brien and lieutenant Dick Harter would have their work cut out to turn that team into even a quasi-defensive unit. But having a free agent center such as Mark Blount might help things along, don't you think? Blount smiled when presented with that possibility. "I can't wait to go to Florida," he said. That's because he lives in Boca Raton. Or, at least, that's what I thought he meant. "It should be interesting," he said. "We're going to see what happens and see what people are thinking." . . . Former Celtics coach Chris Ford, who is earning his pay overseeing the mess in Philadelphia, got a boost from an old boss, Red Auerbach. "He's not used to people defying the authority of the coach," Auerbach said. "So he's fining guys and he's arguing with the guy. But which side do you think the people of Philadelphia are on? Iverson's a god down there. But I admire Chris for sticking to his beliefs. That's his only chance. Why do you think Larry Brown left there? He didn't want to put up with all that b.s. anymore."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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