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The Rap on Kevin Garnett An MVP season? So what? Critics of one of the NBA's most versatile stars won't let up until he carries Minnesota further into the playoffs

So many people have so many suggestions for Kevin Garnett that the
multitalented Minnesota Timberwolves forward should consider
developing a syndicated tell-me-what-to-do column. You should
play shooting guard, Kevin, says sometime shooting guard Scottie
Pippen. You need to be more selfish in games down the stretch,
Kevin, opines legendary crunchtime quarterback Magic Johnson. You
need to go inside and demand the ball, Kevin, asserts demanding
observer Charles Barkley. You're making a big mistake if you
don't play for your country at the 2004 Olympics, Kevin, scolds
two-time gold medalist Karl Malone.

Garnett professes that these admonitions (all made within the
last year, Malone's within the last month) do not bother him, and
he concedes that to a point, he has heeded Magic and Sir Charles.
He still believes that great players should share the ball with
teammates, even when the game's on the line, but he does allow
that this season, he is more lethal to opponents partly because
he has adopted a more aggressive approach. While Garnett, who
earned a gold medal in Sydney in 2000, responds testily to
Malone--"I won't make a decision just because Karl Malone is
running his mouth," he says--even that has a let-him-talk feel to
it. "Believe me, I critique myself harder than anyone else," says
the 26-year-old Garnett. "Where I'm going to be at the end of the
day is where I want to be."

Where he is now is familiar territory, partly pleasant, partly
treacherous. At week's end Garnett was averaging 23.0 points,
13.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists--all highs for his eight-year
career--and was a leading contender in the hotly contested MVP
race (page 94). But at the same time there is a gnawing
inevitability about Minnesota's season, a sense that despite
Garnett's efforts, his T-Wolves, whose 43--26 record through
Sunday's games ranked fifth in the Western Conference, will exit
in the first round of the playoffs for the seventh straight
season, thereby exposing him to more suggestions. Your team will
go further when you stop shaving your head and grow a 'fro,
Kevin, coif-conscious rebounding machine Ben Wallace will no
doubt tell him.

Few NBA players should need less advice than Garnett. Since he
came into the league from Chicago's Farragut Academy in 1995, he
has leapfrogged every pothole, countered every stereotype. He's a
well-spoken team leader who's never appeared on a police blotter
as a pro, a Viking-like warrior who's missed only seven games
because of injury. Garnett has ridden out some well-publicized
rough waters with teammate Wally Szczerbiak--they aren't close
off the court but at least claim they enjoy playing together--and
has never uttered a discouraging word about the frozen tundra
where he plies his trade. "I've taken to Minnesota from Day One
because of the loyalty the people showed me," says Garnett, a
beach-loving native of South Carolina. "Anyway, it's too damn
cold to do much, so the weather keeps you focused."

In a hellish period between March 5 and Sunday, here's what
Garnett had to focus on: road matchups with Chris Webber,
Shaquille O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki, then Target
Center dates with Tim Duncan, O'Neal again and Rasheed Wallace.
During that stretch, in which Minnesota went 3--4, there were
highs (a 92--83 victory in Dallas), lows (a 111--99 loss to San
Antonio) and in-betweens (a spirited battle at home last Friday
night, won by the Lakers 106--99). And when the gut-check ordeal
ended with Garnett's fifth triple double in a 111--94 victory
over the Trail Blazers, it merely confirmed what was suspected at
the beginning of the season--that despite Garnett's brilliance,
it was doubtful the Timberwolves would advance in the playoffs.

"How does this situation make me feel?" Garnett, sitting in front
of his locker in Minneapolis last week, ponders the question and
stares into space. He started dabbling in yoga last summer, and
during timeouts he occasionally remains on the bench with his
eyes closed, trying to visualize a particular outcome. "It makes
me feel challenged," he says finally. "Extremely challenged."
Garnett the diplomat is satisfied with the answer; Garnett the
frustrated superstar is not, and he soon sticks a toe into the
waters of analysis. "This team plays as hard as any team on any
night," says Garnett. "But most teams that win it all have a main
guy and another guy right there with him, kind of a partner in
crime. Shaq and Kobe. Michael and Scottie. Behind them there's a
supporting cast that knows their roles." He would take his
analysis no further.

Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale knows whereof Garnett
speaks. "Bastards come in pairs" is the way he puts it, and over
the years various combos have failed to jell either because of
injury (in Terrell Brandon's case) or because one bastard wanted
out of Minnesota (Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury). Szczerbiak,
the 6'7" forward and current partner in crime, is not the
slashing, creative type who can provide Garnett with adequate
succor. McHale made a maximum offer ($34 million over six years)
to 6'7" Ricky Davis last summer, but the Cleveland Cavaliers
matched it. The T-Wolves won't have much wiggle room under the
salary cap next year--when Garnett, who signed a six-year, $126
million extension before the 1997--98 season, earns $28
million--so in all probability what you see in Minnesota is what
you'll get for a while.

Garnett will not address whether he would take less to help the
T-Wolves land more talent; he says he's "too focused on this
season." His agent, Andy Miller, was in negotiations last summer
on a reported four-year, $80 million contract (as hard as it is
to fathom, that would represent a pay cut), and though Garnett
finally brought an end to the talks, he has never said he would
demand maximum money when he becomes a free agent, in 2004. What
he has said is that winning a title is paramount in his thinking,
and making a financial sacrifice may be the only way to achieve
that goal.

Even if he doesn't, Garnett by himself is one of the league's
best shows. Before the opening tip-off he can be found crouched
along the baseline, psyching himself up, adrenaline coursing
through his elongated 220-pound body. (He refers to himself as
6'11"; coach Flip Saunders calls him "6-foot-13," which is closer
to the truth.) He strides to midcourt and, already sweating,
spreads some love, then doesn't stop moving for the next two
hours. He might be the only big man to work himself into a
low-post position by coming off a perimeter weave.

Despite Garnett's natural gifts--quickness, jumping ability,
size--his game has none of the apparent effortlessness of, say,
Kobe Bryant's. He is, rather, the frontcourt version of Mavericks
point guard Steve Nash, seeming to exert maximum energy on almost
every shot. Garnett competes with such intensity that he used to
spoil Minnesota's practice drills. "We wanted to work on
something specific, like defending a pick-and-roll," says
Saunders, "but all KG wanted to do was come out on top. We had to
throttle him back a little." Indeed, Garnett still feels his
biggest weakness is being too hyper. "My decision-making is
sometimes horrendous," he says. "I need to slow down and assess
rather than rush in." Yet Garnett is also called upon to calm
down everyone else. Point guard Troy Hudson is an excitable
player given to streak shooting, while Szczerbiak can come
unglued after a spate of missed shots. Garnett, the team captain,
is their counselor.

Garnett's position of record is power forward, but his role is
more fluid than that of any other player in the league. He breaks
pressure with his ball handling, chases teams out of zones with
his outside shooting, attempts to foul out big men with post-ups.
With 458 free throw attempts at week's end, he was only nine shy
of his career high. On defense he bumps butts with the behemoths
under the basket, yet he also plays in front of Minnesota's 3--2
zone and sometimes chases the ball-handling moths. All that, and
he's tied with Bryant for the league lead in triple doubles and
ranks behind only the Detroit Pistons' Wallace in rebounding.

Alas, versatility is not always perceived as a virtue in the NBA;
multitalented players, particularly big men, are sometimes looked
on as soft. This is the perception that has stuck to
Garnett--who, despite averaging nearly a triple double against
the Mavericks in last year's playoffs, drew the brunt of the
criticism for the T-Wolves' three-game flameout. He accepts the
reality of the criticism but rejects the option of changing.
"Being versatile is what makes me different," says Garnett. But
that's precisely the issue, Kevin: Is being so versatile good for
your team? Garnett grows a little impatient. "I don't worry about
overdefining my position," he says. "I don't fall into
discussions of where I fit in. I'm just a basketball player. I do
what has to be done to get it done."

He didn't get it done last week against either the Spurs or the
Lakers at the Target Center, struggling to find operating room in
the post. He has neither the bulk to power through people nor the
Duncan-like footwork to maneuver in tight spaces. Muscular,
doubling-down defenses can force him out of position, make him
turn and face the basket. That wouldn't be a problem if Garnett,
the league's best-passing big man, had reliable outside shooters,
which Hudson, shooting guard Anthony Peeler and swingman Kendall
Gill are not.

None of this is breaking news to Saunders, who can hang at a
chalkboard with any other NBA coach. Saunders knows that in the
playoffs, a slow-down, pound-it-inside offense is often the way
to win. He also knows that a versatile player such as Garnett can
best dictate the flow of the game when he's facing the basket in
the wide-open spaces. It's a conundrum. But neither player nor
coach seems ready to change the best thing about Garnett--that he
plays the game the way it should be played. "All I've been
hearing is how Americans are too oriented toward one-on-one
basketball, they don't know how to pass, they aren't smart," says
Saunders. "Then KG is criticized for doing exactly those things.
It's hypocritical."

Garnett, who said last week that he still hasn't decided whether
to play for the U.S. Olympic team, agrees. "If I have a 12-foot
shot and I see a teammate who's wide open at seven feet, I'm
going to give him the ball," he says. "Every time. That's the
only way to play." And if that style doesn't get the T-Wolves as
far as he wants to get them?

Garnett sets his jaw. "I believe it will," he says. "I believe it
can. And if it doesn't, it's still the right way to play."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH STANDING FAST Despite six straight first-round losses, Garnett soldiers on, hoping this will be the breakthrough year.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO STRETCH DRIVE With career bests in points, rebounds and assists, Garnett is peaking as a player.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH WOLF PACK Among Garnett's running mates, Hudson (above) is too streaky, while Szczerbiak isn't creative enough.

Garnett is the frontcourt version of point guard Steve Nash,
seeming to exert MAXIMUM ENERGY on almost every shot.

"If I have a 12-foot shot and I see a teammate who's wide open at