Timberwolves fretting over news that Garnett’s Friday return looks iffy

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ worst nightmare is playing out over the next few days, and there is nothing they can do about it.

Kevin Garnett’s strained abdominal muscles already are holding the NBA franchise hostage, and they could add another 19,000 or so Friday night when the Boston Celtics face the Wolves at Target Center. Garnett, see, might miss his own “Welcome Back”‘ party.

Think of it like this: The guest of honor yelling “Surprise”‘ at all his gathered friends. Via long distance.

Garnett’s big return figured to be sellout
If there was one game on the Wolves’ schedule this season that figured to be SRO, a big-time, no-brainer, popcorn-and-fireworks event, it was Friday, when Garnett returns to the scene of his most memorable moments, facing for the first time in the Twin Cities the team that he carried for 12 years.

No one got to say goodbye last spring when a frustrated Garnett sat out, with a suspect injury, from what would have been his final game in a Wolves uniform. Traded in July to the Celtics for the biggest one-player bounty in NBA history (the Wolves got five current members and two first-round draft picks), he still ranks among the most talented performers in Minnesota pro sports history and, post-Kirby Puckett, its most popular.

His departure sealed off those dozen seasons — his era — as a disappointment overall (no championships, three years missing the playoffs at the end) that had less to do with Garnett’s contributions than management’s inability to keep a strong supporting cast around him.

In Boston, Garnett got that supporting cast instantly, judged by half of one season anyway; the Celtics were 36-8 through the weekend, the league’s best record (the Wolves’ 10-36 ranked second-worst). So the 11-time NBA All-Star’s lone visit to Target Center Friday was looking like an in-the-flesh reminder of what could have been, along with a chance for both the athlete and the fans to say thanks.

Now it might look like a flop. Garnett missed three consecutive games since suffering his injury late in the Celtics’ victory over the Wolves on Jan. 25; he had to lobby coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers to get back on the floor in that one, pilfering a key steal at the end. He has been limited to treatment, swimming and cycling ever since, and his lack of practice time rules him out at Cleveland Tuesday night. Though Garnett traveled with the team, team spokesman Jeff Twiss said Rivers and the club’s medical staff did not clear him to face the Cavaliers.

That leaves a home game Wednesday (no Celtics practice in between) and then Boston’s one-game trip to Minnesota Friday. With Garnett hampered by an injury that demands respect — and often, layoffs of considerable lengths — it is more likely he will not play than he will. (Since the NBA shifted to a day-of-game “inactive” list — no more mandatory five-game layoffs — availability decisions can be made up until an hour before tipoff.)

“I think that’s out of the question,”‘ Rivers told reporters after practice Monday, when asked about the Minnesota game. Four days out, of course, “out of the question” leaves fudge room for “maybe,” though the Celtics’ risk would be great.

“There’s no date,” Rivers said a day earlier. “It could be as early as this weekend or it could be after the All-Star break [Feb. 15-17].”

Celtics’ cautious approach makes lots of sense

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious. An abdominal strain in 1997-98 cost Shaquille O’Neal 21 games in 1997-98, and the Lakers center wasn’t fully recovered even when he returned. Former L.A. coach Del Harris told the Boston Globe that a similar injury ended Hall of Famer Jerry West’s career. “You need to be very careful with those kinds of injuries,”‘ Harris said, “because it will get to where it’s feeling all right and it still isn’t all right. And you strain it again. Or worse. It can get ugly if you don’t take proper care of it.”

Then there is Garnett’s game intensity, added argument for holding him back. “You know KG, there’s no ’75 percent’ to his effort,”‘ former Wolves coach Flip Saunders told me Monday. “In that game particularly, he could turn it into a hernia.”‘

The Celtics have loftier goals than a regular-season clash in February with a Western Conference lottery team. There’s a rugged second half to their schedule, followed by the postseason and championship dreams, with Garnett’s presence required throughout. “That’s why, if he’s 97 percent OK to play, he won’t play,” Twiss said.

Where does that leave Wolves management? In the awkward position of selling out their arena for an attraction that might not show. Granted, this is sports, not show biz. If Elvis gets laryngitis, concert promoters can cancel the show and give refunds. But if Shaq or Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady is hurt and misses a road game, the fans in that town are stuck. (Actually, if Elvis gets laryngitis, the concert promoters should immediately phone in the scoop to this reporter, and I’ll start clearing space on the mantel for the Pulitzer.)

This stings more, though, than ponying up for tickets to “Zorba” and then realizing Anthony Quinn is dead. It’s a little extra-embarrassing for the Wolves because they used Garnett’s return to sell other games, packaging it in full and partial season-ticket plans to pump sales of less appealing dates. Eventually, you could land a Boston ticket by buying three- or even two-game packages, but it never was available individually.

And it still sold out.

Timberwolves forced to play wait and see
No wonder team management has been scouring the Internet for news of Garnett’s condition the way folks near the Vatican periodically watch for white smoke.

“We have to wait to find out like everyone else,” Ted Johnson, Wolves senior VP of marketing and communications, told me.

No refunds? “No,” Johnson said. “It’s just part of the world of sports.”

Wolves owner Glen Taylor isn’t convinced yet that Garnett will not play. Like a lot of us, he has seen the lanky forward’s recovery powers, going down as if shot and grabbing an ankle or a knee, then resuming play a minute later as if nothing happened. “He has such good fortune, in that he hasn’t had to play very many games when hurt,” Taylor said by phone from Dallas Monday night.

Then again, Garnett has never played this old (32 in May) with this many miles on him, through this type of injury.

If Garnett does not play or even board the plane for Minnesota, it isn’t as if the Wolves will have to dismantle a big, showy ceremony. The only thing planned is a pause during introductions to allow for fan reaction, rather than having the P.A. announcer blow through the Celtics’ names in standard NBA dissing of the visitors’ stars.

That’s how it went when Saunders returned with Detroit in 2006 after taking the Wolves to eight playoff appearances from 1997-2004. He got a standing ovation and figures Garnett’s will be even more grand, whenver it comes. “It will be unbelievable, probably a bigger ovation than he ever got while he was playing there,” Saunders predicted.

Beyond that, though, the Wolves plan no videoboard tribute. No plaques, no gifts, no jersey number hoisted to the rafters.

“We’ll have the pause and give the fans a chance to acknowledge Kevin,”‘ Johnson said. “Yet we want our fans, after they acknowledge him, to get right back on board behind our players. He isn’t retiring. He’ll be back to play here again.”‘

As a matter of fact, if Garnett can’t go Friday, the Wolves can do it all over again next season, marketing the heck out of his increasingly anticipated, even-longer-awaited return to Target Center.

Nightmare? More like brilliant.

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