Wally finally reaps playoff rewards

LOS ANGELES -- The suffering endured by Wally Szczerbiak can't match Kevin Garnett's seven years of playoff purgatory.

He's not too far off, though.

Szczerbiak took part in four of Minnesota's seven straight first-round dismissals. Next to Garnett, he also took the biggest share of the blame in the last couple of early exits, when the Wolves seemed most capable of finally ending their suffering. It was just last spring, in fact, that Szczerbiak was seen as more of a scapegoat than Garnett when Minnesota fell from the verge of a 3-1 lead over the Lakers to three straight defeats.

Worst of all for Wally, it looked like he was going to miss out on all the payback.

Only in the past few games, after missing so much of the Timberwolves' redemptive season, has Szczerbiak regained his place of prominence. Injuries excluded him from 38 of Minnesota's 58 wins, and even most of these playoffs, but the Spreeality is this for KG and his new crew:

In this rematch with the Lakers, chances are they won't win anymore games without something good from Wally.

"The playoffs have been good," Szczerbiak says, fresh off a flurry of 14 straight points in the third quarter and 21 points overall in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. "I've been making good contributions.

"It's an adjustment (coming off the bench), but it's been fun. I've made the most of it. It's by no means something I want to do my whole career, but for this year it's really helped the team. I think it's given us another dimension."

It has also given pause to those who have dismissed Szczerbiak as expendable, now that Garnett is flanked by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell and the deepest bench Minnesota has ever had.

It's the deepest bench in the league, when everyone's healthy, as proclaimed here at ESPN.com back in March. Yet even on a team as stacked as Minnesota's, there is simply no substitute for a dead-eye shooter, one of the most precious commodities in the modern game. You saw what happened to San Antonio without one. You see what's happening to Indiana in the East finals now that Reggie Miller is only a fringe participant. Great shooters are harder than ever to find, so don't assume that Wolves personnel chief Kevin McHale is in a rush to chase this one off.

With Szczerbiak, mind you, there are always assumptions. Skeptics were convinced coming into the season that coach Flip Saunders had no shot at finding enough shots to keep Wally and Sam and Spree and Troy Hudson content. The long-term injuries suffered by Szczerbiak and Hudson spared Saunders from that challenge, but further doubt about Wally's future stems from his chilly past with Garnett ... and the joy KG has clearly taken in forming a Big Three with Sam and Spree ... and episodes like we saw late in Game 2.

It sure didn't seem like Wally's teammates were in a rush to back him in that confrontation with Derek Fisher and Gary Payton.

Yet if Wally is worried about his standing with KG, or his future, it's tough to tell. Szczerbiak is so giddy to be back on the court, it's tough to get him off it. He held up the team bus with his post-practice routine Wednesday, which began with work on a side court with McHale ... and then some weight-lifting ... and then some extra free-shooting. Just to stay extra sharp.

"He's been great," Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. "I think what says it best is Game 7 (of the Sacramento series). I took him out with about five minutes to go and I said, 'Wally, I'm going to give you a minute (of rest) here, just a minute, so for the last four minutes you've got that extra burst.' Wally said, 'Hey, listen, whatever you've got to do, you coach whoever you think should be in there.'

"He's bought into (his bench role) extremely well. And I've said all along, when he got criticized (in the past) because he would shoot a lot, the (only) reason Wally does that is because that's what he thinks he needs to do in order for our team to win."

Great is actually how the season started for Szczerbiak. Even after the splashy acquisitions McHale made, it was Wally who was asked to join Flip in a Joseph Abboud clothing ad that appeared in numerous national magazines.

Szczerbiak and Saunders might have passed it up, for karma reasons, had they known that Wally would wind up spending months in street clothes. Plantar fasciitis kept Szczerbiak sidelined for 53 games, until after the All-Star break, and a hard fall in Game 3 of the first round against Denver fractured bones in his back and threatened to knock him out of the playoffs.

He didn't return until Game 6 of the Sacramento series, meaning Szczerbiak was reduced to spectator status when the Wolves finally caged that First Round Gorilla. Yet it turns out there was time for another status change: Szczerbiak is suddenly known as a Super Sub, using tricks passed on from his sessions with McHale to find openings against a team that swarmed him a year ago.

"It was tough sitting out for so long," Szczerbiak said. "I love being part of the team. I was around the guys a lot, but not to be able to be out there playing with a lot of the new faces, seeing what they can do and then not being able to show what I can do, it was really, really hard.

"But the team did great, and it motivated me work to harder to get back there and get healthier."

Sprewell echoed that, saying Szczerbiak's return is most welcomed no matter how it looks to outsiders.

"It's very similar to the situation I had in New York with Allan (Houston)," Spree said. "People had concerns about that, if we were going to be able to co-exist, and it was never a problem. I always say, 'The more the merrier.' Give me five guys (who) can put the ball in the hole."

In the short term, with Cassell so limited by his own back trouble, Szczerbiak's ability to make shots and take pressure off Garnett is crucial to Minnesota's hopes of stealing Game 4 and staying in this series.

As for the long term, Szczerbiak is taking a pragmatic view. Even though McHale insists he isn't about to part with Wally -- whose hefty contract limits trade possibilities anyway, despite interest from Cleveland for starters -- those nagging questions about getting out of the first round will be replaced by questions about roster overload when the team reconvenes for training camp next October.

With a healed Szczerbiak and Hudson, and given the success of role players like defensive specialist Trenton Hassell and Fred Hoiberg, trade assumptions will persist no matter what the Wolves' principals say.

"The main thing (this season) was trying to get healthy and trying not to get too caught up with thoughts about the future," Szczerbiak said. "You can get a phone call anytime. You could be on the beach somewhere and they could call you and say, 'You're traded.'

"I've got to forget about (the injuries) and look forward to the future, and right now the future's bright. As a team, we're all buying in and we're all doing what it takes. We've got a chance to do something special here."

They've suffered enough.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.