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Saunders has Wolves back in the hunt again

MINNEAPOLIS -- Phil Saunders is the only coach in NBA history to lose seven consecutive first-round playoff series.

Not a flattering fact, but there's always a Flip side to consider.

At midseason, Saunders has guided the Minnesota Timberwolves to first place in the Midwest Division with one of the league's top three records.

"Everyone talks about the first round," Saunders said. "We've got 10 new guys. They don't worry about that. Our goal is to win a championship."

The man known by his nickname, Flip, will coach the Western Conference squad next weekend in the All-Star Game, and his staff will accompany him to Los Angeles for the showcase event.

"I'm real joyous for those guys," said Kevin Garnett, who has shared all of his victories and defeats with Saunders.

"Flip's done a really good job," said Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale, who hired Saunders in 1995. "I think sometimes the biggest challenge is trying to find enough players to fit out there."

Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell were acquired in summer trades, and several useful role players (Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg, Ervin Johnson, Trenton Hassell, and Oliver Miller) were added in recent months.

Garnett, Cassell, and Sprewell give the Wolves their best nucleus since Garnett, Stephon Marbury, and Tom Gugliotta in 1996-97 -- Saunders's first full season and Minnesota's first appearance in the playoffs.

The Timberwolves, though, never shed their up-and-coming status.

Marbury forced a trade, Gugliotta left as a free agent, Malik Sealy died in car accident, and NBA commissioner David Stern harshly penalized the team for illegally signing Joe Smith to a long-term contract.

Garnett was always good enough to get them in the playoffs, but the search for a solid supporting cast kept Minnesota from making a serious run in the competitive Western Conference. As the postseason losses piled up, some suggested McHale or Saunders -- friends from their playing days at the University of Minnesota -- should be replaced.

But owner Glen Taylor extended Saunders's contract through the 2005-06 season when the Portland Trail Blazers wooed him in June 2001. That commitment seems to be paying off.

Saunders's motion system -- based on getting multiple players frequent touches and exploiting mismatches -- has helped a group of divergent personalities and emotional players function harmoniously. That's with three of the Wolves' top six players -- Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Michael Olowokandi -- rendered useless because of injury.

After a 9-8 start, Saunders implored his team to stop worrying.

"When he brought everyone together and said, `Just go out and do what you do,' that's when Sam started playing great, that's when Spree started playing great and we started clicking," Hoiberg said. "Flip really got everyone on the right page."

A star point guard for the Gophers in the early 1970s, Saunders is considered one of the league's finest offensive minds.

Golden State coach Eric Musselman, then a 24-year-old general manager in the Continental Basketball Association, actually hired Saunders to coach the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers in 1988-89. Saunders spent seven seasons in the CBA, winning titles in 1989-90 and 1991-92 with the La Crosse (Wis.) Catbirds.

Enduring the budget motels, paltry per diems, and changing rosters, Saunders developed his system and gained valuable experience in the CBA -- just as Phil Jackson and George Karl did.

"You have to wait until someone gives you an opportunity," Saunders said.

Don Zierden, a Timberwolves assistant who has coached with Saunders at several stops, recalled a ritual in which they would head to a La Crosse steakhouse after the morning shootaround.

"My job was to buy a Minneapolis and a St. Paul paper," Zierden said. "We'd open it up, and we'd read about the Timberwolves, and he'd say, `You know what? We're going to turn that thing around someday.' "

Some players occasionally complain about a lack of communication about their roles. "It's like anything," forward Gary Trent said. "Whether it's a boss-employer relationship, a husband-wife relationship or a parent-kid relationship. You need consistency."

Saunders maintains that the best players will play.

"Basketball is played the same way in eighth grade as it is in the pros," McHale said. "If you move the ball and your body with a purpose on offense, you protect the paint and rebound on defense, you're going to win an eighth-grade tournament, you're going to win a high school championship, and you've got a chance to win an NBA championship."

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