MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Timberwolves have talked about the importance of securing one of the top four seeds in the stacked Western Conference for the past six years, each of which concluded with an opening-round exit from the postseason.
This time, they finally got one.
But -- darn the luck -- look who's coming to town: the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Saturday, April 19
Milwaukee at New Jersey, 11:30 a.m.
Boston at Indiana, 2 p.m.
Phoenix at San Antonio, 4:30 p.m.
Portland at Dallas, 7 p.m.
Utah at Sacramento, 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 20
Orlando at Detroit, 11:30 a.m.
L.A. Lakers at Minnesota, 2:30 p.m.
New Orleans at Philadelphia, 7 p.m.
The best-of-seven series begins Easter Sunday afternoon.
"It's going to be a good challenge," coach Flip Saunders said following Thursday's practice in the Timberwolves' workout facility at the health club in the basement of Target Center.
"They can do some things that they think can give us problems," Saunders said, "and we have some things we think we can do to give them problems."
Most of the league and its followers certainly believe the Wolves are going to have problems ending their 0-for-6 streak in the playoffs against a Lakers team that surged to a 50-32 record -- one game behind Minnesota -- and fifth place in the West after beginning the season 3-9.
Los Angeles won 13 of its last 15 to close the regular season, Kobe Bryant became just the third player in franchise history to average 30 points per game and Shaquille O'Neal is never any fun to play against.
History doesn't help, either. Since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff in 1984, the No. 4 seeds have only won 42 percent of their first-round series (16 out of 38).
The overall record of the four seeds? Just 74-85.
But the Timberwolves don't care about any of that. They set a franchise record for victories despite enduring more injuries to key players than they've had in some time.
The season began without any kind of fan buzz, due to the past playoff failures and the lack of roster turnover, but the Wolves finished higher than a lot of people thought they would have.
"We won 51 games," Saunders said, "and we feel good about ourselves."
Saunders insisted Thursday he believed they'd be playing the Lakers all along, noting he has had some of his assistants looking at film on them for a couple of weeks now.
So he wasn't surprised, then, when the pilot of the team's charter flight home from Memphis late Wednesday night gave the score of the Lakers' win over Golden State and Portland's loss to the L.A. Clippers.
If there were groans on the plane after that announcement, nobody would admit it.
"I've never been afraid of anybody," Garnett said Wednesday before learning that the Lakers would be the opponent. "I'm not going to be afraid. This team has never been afraid."
On Thursday, Garnett took the same approach.
"You've got to play somebody," he said, sitting in a chair and surrounded by cameras and microphones. "There are no easy wins in this league. This is my hand. We've got to play it."
Garnett has made himself a top candidate for the league's MVP award this year after enduring some criticism last year for his fourth-quarter production in the playoffs and his lack of ability -- so far -- to lead the Timberwolves past the first round.
That has helped fuel him this season.
"You've got to be able to put not only yourself but your team in position to shut your critics up," Garnett said. "You don't go comment for comment -- that's an argument. You go at stupidity with facts. You go at opinions with facts. That's the way you clear all that up.
"I felt like if we played hard and won games, we'd silence critics by just doing that alone."
They can win over even more of their skeptics by beating the Lakers in this series. And homecourt sure helps. The Timberwolves had the second best home record in the league (33-8) during the regular season.
"We've thought every year was going to be the year we were going to do it," Garnett said. "Now that we have homecourt advantage, it doesn't give you any guarantees."
Notes: F Joe Smith, who didn't play in the regular-season finale against Memphis because of a hyperextended knee, did some running in practice Thursday and looked "better," Saunders said. "I'm cautiously optimistic." ... The Wolves won't make any roster moves for the playoffs, meaning G Igor Rakocevic will stay on the injured list with Brandon and Lopez.
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