Bouncing Around: The Atlanta Choke, the KG Smear, and 4th Q Stats

There won’t be a three pointer on the Wolves’ dreadful collapse against the Hawks Saturday night. Frankly, it didn’t bother me as much as the pig-headed play and lack of effort that fostered Minnesota’s loss to a thoroughly disinterested Denver Nuggets squad the night before. At least the Atlanta game found the Wolves playing inspired ball for an entire half. What happened in the second half was a team-wide choke, but veteran Wolves’ watchers have certainly seen it before in previous years. As it was, spitting up a 21-point lead was only the third largest edge the team has sacrificed in franchise history. In other words, more talented and seasoned squads than this one have choked on larger advantages.

Or maybe my outrage meter redlined against Denver and it made more sense to put this sorry squad into perspective again.

Still, if not a full-blown trey, we should note a few items. Al Jefferson had a stunning 18 points on 6 shots from the field in the first half (6-6 FG, 6-6 FT), plus 11 rebounds. When Atlanta adjusted its coverage and put two or three guys on Jefferson, the Wolves were flummoxed and the offense stalled. Coach Wittman has discovered that his most intelligent offensive player, the guy who can best "make something happen" in the half-court sets, is Antoine Walker. But Witt’s adjustment has been to slide Jefferson over to center and install ‘Toine at the power forward slot. This allignment is deadly to the front court matchups at both positions. As Paul "ikrushsots" so helpfully pointed out with statistics from 82games.com in the comments sections of the last trey, Jefferson’s effectiveness plummets at the center position. And Walker simply can’t guard quality power forwards, like, for instance, Atlanta’s Josh Smith.

Minnesota’s huge el foldo act isn’t just limited to that substitution. As the Wolves coughed up the lead, Jefferson was rushing his shots, especially on putbacks of offensive rebounds. That would have happened whether he was a "4" or a "5." And the growing backlash against the horrible, and selfish, shooting performances put in by Rashad McCants the previous three games certainly had him reluctant to pull the trigger on his own shot during crunch time (at least I assume that’s what held him back). Finally, the ability of Hawks’ point guard Tyrone Lue to get his teammates involved in the offense dramatizes how crucial heady point guard play can be. And while Marko Jaric had a second good game in a row, and actually went to the hoop with authority, he is not on even the mediocre Lue’s level when it comes to seeing the court and enablign good half court possessions.

For most of the season, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that Wittman hasn’t been incompetent. That is not to say that he’s been especially competent either, but last year’s 12-30 mark and constant carping about discipline while the inmates still seemed to run the asylum (and yes, Pretty Ricky Davis, I’m talking about you and your boy Blount) set the bar pretty damn low for Wittman. And he’s still above that nadir.

But without Theo Ratliff on your roster, how do you leave Michael Doleac in street clothes? Doleac is a larger body than Mark Madsen, and, while not as quick, bangs very well. More importantly, he can pop out for a little 12-15 footer and nail it 50 percent of the time. That’s a good counter to teams who double Jefferson with a couple of bigs. Do you think it is a problem for Atlanta to double Jefferson with Madsen’s man? Me neither. And as I said, Walker at power forward makes for a lousy defensive front line. The statistics indicate that Jefferson suffers at center; so do the eyes of anyone watching these games. Why doesn’t Wittman see it; or, if he does, why doesn’t he respond?

Here’s another criticism of the coach. He strongly lamented the inability of his ballclub to penetrate to the hoop for most of the second half. He seemed mystified that it would happen. During the postgame press conference, I mentioned that Marko seemed to be penetrating well, and the coach jumped in before I finished my sentence, saying (and I paraphrase because I wasn’t taping): Yeah, in the first half, and on the first possession of the third quarter. But not after that. We stopped penetrating until we had given up the lead and there were two minutes left.

Okay, fine. What is the one attribute that Wittman was cited for as the reason to keep him on board this year? His ability to run a tight ship, to discipline his players, keep them on the same page, eliminate the bullshit. So why wasn’t he able to emulate Gregg Popovich (a much better example than Witt’s mentor, Bobby Knight) and simply call a timeout, sit across from the players and tell them if they didn’t start fucking going for points in the paint he was going to bench their asses and find people who could? Because that’s what Pops says when his squad isn’t playing defense to his liking. And he backs it up by sitting them down. Instead, Witt watched it happen for what he claims was almost all of the second half, a 24-minute stretch when the squad scored 24 points after getting 63 in the opening 24 minutes, and couldn’t stress how important penetration was to the game; either wouldn’t, or couldn’t, get through to them. And this happened, by the way, in the immediate wake of Wittman telling the press that Rashad McCants didn’t take bad shots in his 1-15 performance against the Nuggets the night before; a game in which Shaddy consistently jacked it up from outside rather than engaging in dribble penetration.

On to another thing that has my undies in a twist. As those of you who read the comments know, I have been a little peeved at the ill will expressed toward KG’s new ballclub, the Boston Celtics, both in terms of observers disliking and underestimating the accumulation of talent on the team. There is a Garnett backlash happening, and I imagine it has to do with owner Glen Taylor’s interview with the PiPress’s Rick Alonzo, and even with my comments in an interview on Dan Barreiro’s radio show, where I pointed out how Garnett was two-faced about his support for Flip Saunders and his disdain for Kevin McHale.

I stand by those comments–just as I did when I originally wrote them, both back when Flip was fired, and when KG went off on McHale at the beginning of either last season or the year before. And I also believe KG was a lousy general manager with respect to his advocacy of Troy Hudson and Mike James. Garnett isn’t perfect, by any stretch. But man, his positive impact on the Timberwolves is larger than any one player’s impact on any one franchise that I can come up with in all of team sports. And, it should be remembered, it was management’s decision to trade him. Now, for reasons I have stated, I endorse the trade, and by now I’m sure KG endorses the trade, if he didn’t at first. But this backlash business is bullshit.

The latest example is a column in today’s Strib by Jim Souhan, a writer I happen to like better than most of the people I talk to about him (or maybe bitching about the Strib guy is just the nature of the business for most folks). First a little background. On Thanksgiving Day, Souhan wrote a piece about Torii Hunter signing with the Angels, entitled "An unhappy adieu, but a wise decision." As the subhed indicates, the thrust of Souhan’s column was that "it didn’t make sense for the Twins to pony up the money to keep him." Funny, that was the argument I was making with Souhan on the radio this summer, and he was forcefully disagreeing, going so far as to say it would be preferable to trade Johan Santana and keep Hunter if one or the other must go.

Anyway, having agreed with Hunter’s departure, Souhan felt the need to balance it by paying tribute to the Twins’ longtime center fielder two days later. And he allowed his fondness for Hunter’s sunny disposition to besmirch his perspective in a significant way. Here are his first three paragraphs:

"Tori Hunter’s departure creates more than a void in the Twins lineup– it creates a void
in Minnesota sports.

"In the past decade we’ve heard Latrell Sprewell complaining that a three-year $21 million contract wasn’t enough to help him feed his family. We went through the Love Boat scandal. We watched Sam Cassell dog his way out of Minnesota, and Randy Moss make even a team desperate for star power and talent eager to dump him.

"We’ve watched Kevin Garnett sulk while playing under the terms of a record-setting contract, watched Kyle Lohse take a baseball bat to his manager’s door, watched A.J. Pierzynski talk his way out of town. [emphasis mine] Through it all–and since he first signed with the Twins back in 1994– Hunter made himself our model athlete by bringing to life all the cliches about persistence, perseverence and passion."

That’s right: To better glorify Torii Hunter, Souhan lumps KG in with, in order, Sprewell, Fred Smoot and the Love Boat crew, Sam Cassell, Randy Moss, Kyle Lohse and AJ Pierzynski. Apparently Garnett did not bring to life "all the cliches about persistence, perseverence and passion." He was too busy sulking.

It just so happens that the very same day that this tripe appears, Sid Hartman also had a column in which he quotes at length a recent interview he had with Hunter:

"Had the Twins’ three-year offer for $45 million been five years for $75 million, he might have considered it, Hunter said, but on the other hand he wanted to play with a winner. He said he doesn’t think the Twins are going to have the talent to win in the future.

"…’I was going to get what I was going to get. I just wanted to make sure I was with a team that wants to win, that’s going to try to win day in and day out…I just didn’t feel the Twins were that ballclub.’

"It will be hard for the Twins to attract free agents, Hunter added, because the new stadium lacks a roof.

"’People aren’t even thinking about this,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t play in Minnesota unless my career was at an end and I had to go to Minnesota to play the game…People think that’s not true–that’s 100 percent accurate. This is coming from a player, so I’m telling you.’"

See, all the talk about wanting to remain with the Twins, and especially being able to finish his career playing on that wonderful grass in the new outdoor ballpark, that was Hunter’s passion–not to mention his persistence and perseverence–coming through. I mean, at least he wasn’t like that sulker Garnett, who took less money than the market would pay him so that his local franchise could go out and sign better players. If he made that challenge to management, I’m sure Hunter would have backed it up the way Garnett did, by going out and earning the MVP Award when management stepped up and got those players. And Hunter certainly would have been his same old honest, effervescent self if he’d then watched the franchise make a series of disastrous personnel moves and cost his squad any chance of competing for a championship three years running. I mean, just because he took a poke at Justin Morneau the last time the Twins didn’t make the playoffs and he didn’t have an expiring contract for his escape doesn’t mean the guy would sulk in that situation–at least not the way that bad Garnett sulked. Isn’t that what you remember about his 12 years in town?

Later in Souhan’s piece he offers up these pearls of wisdom:

"What do we ask of our best athletes? To play hard. To play hurt. To recognize how lucky they are to be wealthy, to take care of their families and invest wisely. To be a good teammate. To work on their craft. To show a little joy. To care about winning

"Hunter did all of that."

If Souhan doesn’t realize that KG also did all of that, while performing at a level beyond Hunter’s grasp, then he ought not to write about things he doesn’t understand. Like hoops. And human character.

Finally, in memory of the Wolves latest collapse, I present some typically compelling info from stat guru Paul Swanson (apologies for what I’m sure will be a somewhat garbled transfer):

 

2007-08 4th Quarters
(through November 24)

NBA Wolves Wolves
Average Offense Defense
——- ——- ——-
Points 24.5 21.2 26.7
FG Pct 44.0% 34.7% 46.6%
3Pt Pct 35.6% 41.8% 37.5%
FT Pct 74.9% 75.0% 79.0%
FT Att 7.8 7.3 9.1
Off Reb 2.8 3.6 3.3
Def Reb 7.6 6.3 8.6
Tot Reb 10.4 9.9 11.9
Assists 4.7 3.6 4.4
Steals 1.7 1.5 1.8
TOs 3.6 3.5 3.3
Blocks 1.2 1.2 1.5

*

2007-08 Minnesota Timberwolves
Individual 4th Quarter Statistics
(through Nov. 24)

Player Min FGM-A FG% 3FG-A FTM-A Reb Ast Stl TO Blk Pts
Jefferson 92 17-42 .405 0- 0 11-14 30 4 3 8 2 45
McCants 63 11-29 .379 6-14 8-10 8 3 3 4 0 36
Jaric 61 7-19 .368 2- 5 8-10 5 6 3 2 2 24
Gomes 57 5-17 .294 4- 8 10-12 7 4 1 2 0 24
Walker 81 7-30 .233 4-13 5-11 20 5 1 5 0 23
Telfair 68 9-26 .346 3- 6 2- 2 5 7 1 3 2 23
Brewer 65 4-11 .364 0- 2 7-10 10 4 1 2 2 15
Buckner 61 4-13 .308 3- 5 3- 4 8 2 2 5 0 14
Green 33 6-12 .500 1- 2 0- 0 4 4 1 4 1 13
Ratliff 24 3- 4 .750 0- 0 3- 3 6 1 0 1 3 9
Smith 46 1-12 .083 0- 0 3- 4 6 0 1 1 1 5
Richard 7 1- 1 1.00 0- 0 0- 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
Doleac 2 0- 0 .000 0- 0 0- 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Wolves 75-216 .347 23-55 60-80 109 40 17 38 13 233
Opponents 97-208 .466 21-56 79-100 131 48 20 36 16 294