Powers: Flip Saunders left a Minnesota Timberwolves team that could be playoff bound

MINNEAPOLIS -- Once the playoffs began, former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders always became part four-star general, part Sigmund Freud and part Mean Gene Okerlund.He was at his best in the postseason, stirring things up by playin...

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders looks on during the second half against the Washington Wizards Feb. 25 at Target Center. Saunders died of cancer in late October. (Photo by Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Once the playoffs began, former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders always became part four-star general, part Sigmund Freud and part Mean Gene Okerlund.
He was at his best in the postseason, stirring things up by playing mind games, applying his own brand of motivational tactics and making each upcoming contest sound like the next showdown at the OK Corral.
“It’s going to be chippy!” he once said of an upcoming playoff contest against Portland.
Chippy like hockey? Why is that, Flip?
Because, Saunders explained, Rasheed Wallace was playing dirty. In fact, Wallace hit Kevin Garnett in, well, an area that is usually considered off-limits.
“At some point, you have to stop and say, ‘Enough is enough!’”
That caused a sensation. And the next day at practice, Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy was forced to address the situation. Dunleavy said that, yes, Wallace did hit Garnett. It happened right in front of the Portland bench.
Then Dunleavy added: “But then he turns around and goes, ‘K.G., are you OK?’ It was a total accident.”
“He hit him in the groin!” Saunders said, waving off the explanation. “And that’s not the only guy he hit. The truth is the truth. The truth can’t be controversial!”
He then accused Portland of stealing the Timberwolves’ plays.
It was great theater. The Trail Blazers became the Clanton Brothers, and the Wolves became the Earps. Minnesota crowds reacted accordingly.
OK, maybe I told that story a bit too quickly, leaving out pertinent details. A playoff game is something that occurs in the NBA after the regular season. To be able to participate, a team must prove that it is not completely awful during the long, 82-game schedule.
Unfortunately, a generation of area hoops fans has no direct knowledge of the subject. The Timberwolves last made it to the postseason in 2004 - the longest active drought in the NBA.
I’m sitting here, credit cards melted from overuse, festive Christmas debris stuck to my clothing and thinking about Flip. I’ve always been reflective during the holidays. Perhaps overly so. It probably has to do with something from my long-ago past. Maybe it was the time I sat on the department store Santa’s lap and asked for a baby brother. And he said, “Sure, kid, send your mom over.”
Anyway, it’s a shame that Wolves fans won’t get to see Flip coach in another playoff series. If he were still with us, he’d be coaching in another one very soon. He’s put together a pretty good squad here, one with real potential. It’s a wonderful legacy.
Another time, Flip got so upset at an official during a playoff game that he whacked a container of resin that was on a table next to the Timberwolves’ bench. The can went flying onto the court, spewing dust all the way, until it stopped right at the ref’s feet. Not good.
Flip got a technical and was fined $1,000. The next day, asked about the can of powder landing at the official’s feet, he said: “I wonder what would have happened if I had hit him in the head.”
Once, after his team had just lost a playoff game, he was asked about one of his guards, Anthony Peeler, throwing a punch at a member of the opposition.
“Best shot he’s taken all series,” Saunders deadpanned.
He was leaning against the scorer’s table in San Antonio one night, well before tipoff of Game 1, when his eyebrows shot up. A radio announcer was doing his pregame show close by.
“Flip Saunders has flat-out said that the Timberwolves will beat the Spurs!” the announcer boomed over the airwaves.
Saunders shook his head and turned to a couple of local writers. “Somebody asked me if we were going to win,” he said. “What was I supposed to say, ‘No?’ You say ‘no’ and you’ll be looking for another job.” He loved every minute of it.
In the Western Conference finals of 2004, Phil Jackson had somehow convinced Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone, perhaps the two toughest hombres in the NBA, that they were being physically abused by the Wolves. Imagine anybody abusing those two, let alone the Timberwolves.
So Flip walks into practice the next day and the L.A. media is all over him, seeking a comment with regards to his bullying team. Flip looks around for a couple of seconds and then says: “I guess our strength coach deserves a raise.”
In those days, there would sometimes be three or four days off between playoff games, depending on what TV wanted. Several of us were standing around wondering what the heck was left to write for the next day’s paper. We walked over to Flip.
“My grandfather was one of the great horseshoe players in the Cleveland, Ohio, area,” he declared. “We had this big horseshoe pit …”
He was a joy to be around. It was just his makeup.
“You know what’s fun?” he once asked. “Seeing the excitement downtown. People are beeping at you. People are pumping their fists. I walk around town. I’m just like you - I’ve got to take out the garbage, although I don’t take out the garbage as much as I should.”
The current Timberwolves team, which has the makings of a playoff squad, is his last gift to everyone. What a great way to be remembered.

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