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NBA Finals notebook: ‘Tardy’ congrats for KG, plus Cassell, Jackson, Thibodeau notes

Timberwolves VP Kevin McHale spoke this morning about the length, hour and lopsidedness of the NBA Finals clincher Tuesday night between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Read more…
By Steve Aschburner

Timberwolves VP Kevin McHale spoke this morning about the length, hour and lopsidedness of the NBA Finals clincher Tuesday night between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

He volunteered how happy he was for GM Danny Ainge, a close friend and teammate from their time together in earlier Celtics title runs.

Then, and only then, did he acknowledge that Kevin Garnett — who carried the Wolves franchise for most of his 12 years in Minnesota — picked up the championship ring he so long had coveted. “I’ve always said with KG, he needs to be out there with more primary scorers,” McHale said. “You put Paul [Pierce] with Kevin on the floor, you’re going to have a chance to win.

“I think it was a good fit. For some of Kevin’s weaknesses, Paul was able to help Kevin with that. And some Paul’s weakness, Kevin was able to help him with. And Ray [Allen] was able to help all of them.”

Boston legend Larry Bird, a teammate of McHale’s and Ainge’s in that organization’s previous glory run, offered his congratulations in an official release from the Indiana Pacers, the team he runs. But then, Bird could be more effusive without feeling awkward; he didn’t have a hand in building the Celtics’ championship team the way McHale did. The Wolves traded Garnett to Boston last summer for a package of five players and two draft picks, the biggest bonanza in league history for a single star.

At the time, McHale’s connections to the Celtics and to Ainge were offered as reasons for the trade, silly then and silly now. But watching a player who served as his tent pole for more than a decade win a title the first chance he got playing elsewhere didn’t put McHale in the most generous mood.

“Here, probably, we were asking him to do a little too much stuff,” the Wolves VP conceded. “They put together a nice veteran team of guys who fit really well.”

And the fact is, McHale would make the trade again tomorrow, were it pitched tomorrow. As well he should.

“I really like Al [Jefferson, the power forward now playing Garnett’s spot],” McHale said. “Everything swings in this league. All of a sudden, one guy just turning 23, one guy being 32, I’m happy with the direction we went. And the extension that Kevin was looking for was just not going to happen — that $60 million deal, Glen [Taylor, Wolves owner] was just not comfortable doing that. When you get to that point, you say, ‘We’d better trade him. If we’re not going to sign him, we’d better get something.’ I still think that was the best deal by far.”

Here are some other items, cleaned out from my NBA Finals notebook:

Pulling for Garnett to win his first championship invariably meant rooting for Sam Cassell to get his third. Cassell, the cantankerous guard who played two seasons in Minnesota — one memorable, one forgettable — took a buyout from the L.A. Clippers in February and hopped aboard the Boston bandwagon. He didn’t play much for the new champs but he had his moment. And, at 38, he enjoyed the ride.

Cassell earned two rings early in his career with Houston, helping the Rockets win in 1994 and 1995. So while he always was, is and will be concerned mostly with his own good fortunes, the crafty mid-range scorer got to play the wise, winning sage in the Celtics’ locker room.

That gave him license to talk with authority about what this title will mean to Garnett.

“Oh yeah,” Cassell said the other day in L.A. “That’s when life becomes better, even for a guy like Kevin Garnett. He may think he has it all, but he’s missing one thing. Get this [championship] and then he’ll have it all.”

Few people remember anymore that Phil Jackson, the famous Bulls and Lakers coach who was unable to break his tie with legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach for most championships won  (9), nearly became the Wolves’ first head coach back in 1988. A Bulls assistant to Doug Collins then, Jackson happened to know Bob Stein, the former Gophers and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker who served as the Wolves’ first team president. “Bob Stein and I were Democratic athletes for [presidential candidate George] McGovern back in the ’70s,” Jackson told me a few years ago.

Jackson, a North Dakota product who had gained prominence as an energetic backup forward with the New York Knicks, had served as head coach of the ABA Albany Patroons before landing his Chicago job. As it turned out, Wolves co-owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner opted for another ABA refugee, former Gophers coach Bill Musselman, to run their inaugural team.

The Wolves’ early fortunes might have been dramatically different had they hired one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Then again, Jackson’s fortunes might have been different had he gotten his first shot with a team lacking Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “I was lucky,” he said. “I wasn’t chosen.”

Tom Thibodeau didn’t remember hearing any talk about Jackson when he joined Musselman’s staff for the Wolves’ first two seasons (1989-91).
Little-known at the time, Thibodeau was flushed out when Musselman got fired. But he surfaced as a scout with Seattle, then worked on staffs in San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York and Houston before going to Boston as Glenn “Doc” Rivers’ defensive guru.

Defense was the Celtics’ calling card this season, with Garnett getting most of the credit (think NBA Defensive Player of the Year award). But Thibodeau has been 1A in that regard, drilling the Boston players until they got it right, then drilling them some more. “There were days when we wanted to wring Tom Thibodeau’s neck,” Garnett said during the Finals, “but he keeps us intact, and the more and more, I think, we fell in love with [his defense]. It’s our backbone now.”

Thibodeau’s name has been mentioned as a head coaching candidate at various times, especially when jobs in Chicago, Dallas and Phoenix opened up this spring. But he has been hurt by two things: The Celtics’ long playoff run kept him too busy to interview for jobs, and Rivers — one of the league’s most gregarious, down-to-earth coaches — has a rare media policy that prohibits his assistants from talking with reporters.
A little more pub, a bit more attention, might have boosted Thibodeau’s profile enough to enhance his chances. But the jobs are all filled now.