MINNEAPOLIS -- Though the NBA's long, grueling regular season can seem meaningless at times, there's no arguing the value of a first-place finish.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are ready to start capitalizing on theirs.
By compiling the best record in the Western Conference, 58-24, the Wolves earned the top seed for the playoffs and then beat Denver in a first-round series.
Now Minnesota finds itself in the conference semifinals for the first time in eight postseason appearances, and there is no better place to be playing the Sacramento Kings than at home. Game 1 is Tuesday night.
"There's always unknown factors that can happen, whether it's letting the game slip away on the road or having your home crowd," coach Flip Saunders said Sunday. "It's very important to have that extra home game. And also, the first game can set the tone to what the series is going to be like."
The Kings, who disposed of Dallas in five games to advance, faded in April and fell to fourth in the West after leading the conference for most of the season.
"The season is six months long, and for 5 1/2 months they were the best team in the league," Saunders said.
Though his shooting was inconsistent in the first round, Kevin Garnett averaged 25.8 points and 14.8 rebounds for the Timberwolves against tough interior defense.
Garnett could be poised for an even better performance in this series, given his past history against the Kings. The Wolves won three of the four matchups this season, including both times at Sacramento's boisterous Arco Arena, and Garnett averaged 26.8 points and 19.3 rebounds.
In a memorable December game in Northern California, Garnett made two 3-pointers in the final 26 seconds of regulation to force overtime in a 112-109 win.
"K.G. swallowed up all the rebounds, and he was hitting huge threes," said teammate Mark Madsen. "You've got K.G. playing like that, which he does pretty much every night, you've got a great chance to win."
There's another statistic the Wolves can build confidence from. They were the only team to win twice on the Kings' court this season. Sacramento went 34-7 at home.
"I anticipate this being kind of a track-team kind of series where it's really up in the air," Garnett said. "We know this team can put up a lot of points. They're really good at executing their offense."
The Kings, led by Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Brad Miller, averaged 102.8 points this season - second-highest in the league.
"They're a very good team," Minnesota's Latrell Sprewell said. "They have a lot of things they do well. Trying to take away any one thing is going to be difficult."
After losing eight of their last 12 to close the regular season, the Kings were back in form against the Mavericks.
"I always thought we were a lot better than the way we finished the season," Miller said. "Hopefully we've worked out some of the things that were going wrong. Hopefully we're just hitting our stride again."
Depth could be a concern for Minnesota, with swingman Wally Szczerbiak expected to miss at least another two weeks with a back injury. Centers Michael Olowokandi and Oliver Miller missed Sunday's workout with the flu, and center Ervin Johnson fell on his wrist.
Sacramento is missing sixth man Bobby Jackson to an abdominal strain. He probably won't play in this series.
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