Road Game # 2: Minnesota 93, LA Lakers 107
Road Game # 3: Minnesota 93, Sacramento 100
1. Half Empty
The die-hards among us who pledged to ride with the Minnesota Timberwolves throughout the 2007-08 season know that higher levels of tolerance and different parameters of success will be required. Put bluntly, wins and losses take a backseat to player development and team synergy. For those who merely peruse the stats or want to view things in isolation, there were some promising things to take away from this weekend’s losses to the Lakers and the Kings. Those who saw the games, however, might be finding their patience tested by this seemingly willfully callow crew.
In Los Angeles, the Wolves jumped out to a big first quarter lead–albeit only 8 points, the first time in their first four games it wasn’t double digits–and was still within 7 points with 4:15 left to play. In addition, Sebastian Telfair has his best offensive outing, posting 15 points (6-12 FG), to go with 17 from Ryan Gomes and yet another double-double for Al Jefferson, who scored 24 to go with his 15 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass. In all, the Wolves racked up 42 points in the paint.
Sacramento’s statistical high points were even better: A whopping 52-34 advantage on points in the paint, a career-high 15 points from Corey Brewer to go with 16 from Rashad McCants and another team high 17 from Jefferson. Oh, and six blocks by Theo Ratliff.
Yet even by the new and downgraded 2007-08 standards, it was a discouraging couple of games.
The Timberwolves rarely put together extended stretches of solid team play in either contest. One would think the offensive gameplan would always be to establish Al Jefferson in the low block, compel the double and even triple-coverage that might ensue (as happened in Sacramento), and then utilize ball movement to create open shots and/or open seams for penetration.
Nope. Far more often, the Wolves’ perimeter players saw fit to take the game into their own hands, with by far the biggest offender being McCants. Out with a sprained ankle versus the Lakers, Shaddy was inserted into the Kings game late in the first quarter, and wound up playing a little more than 26 minutes, enough time to jack up 14 shots and do a credible imitation of someone fantasizing about being Michael Jordan while working on moves alone at the playground. The most memorable stretch occurred when McCants replaced Gomes with 5:53 to play in the third period and ran amuck until he sat with 20 seconds left in the quarter. During those five and half minutes, he performed some beautiful things, including a trey caught and shot in rhythm right off the bench, and a couple of strong, literally beautiful moves through traffic to get to the rim. But the predominant vibe was palpable, purposeful narcissism–McCants uber alles. Along with five shots in 5:32, he also turned the ball over four times and committed three personal fouls, heedless of anything resembling a practical, incremental action. And despite his seven points, the Wolves were a net minus-1 during his stint. For the game, McCants was minus-9, the second worst total on the team.
The worst total, minus-13, belonged to Brewer in his "breakout" game. Announcers Tom Hanneman and Jim Petersen helpfully pointed out that Brewer is more prolific offensively when "he doesn’t have to think," and it’s true: Those one-on-five drives that McCants utilized and Brewer dutifully copied also got Brewer some fabulous buckets in traffic, as well as notching him 7 free throws, all of which he sank. But do you think there was a reason the normally mild-mannered Al Jefferson started screaming at his teammates to get him the fuckin’ ball about midway through the fourth quarter? Was there a reason the Wolves made two, count ’em, two, field goals in 21 attempts in the 4th quarter? And do you think one of the reasons McCants and Brewer had some success drawing fouls on dribble penetration had to do with the fact that the Kings were minus Ron Artest and were playing their beefiest front line–Brad Miller and Kenny Thomas–to deter Jefferson, who would have enabled Shaddy and the rook even more had they dumped it to Jeff enough to further take Miller and Thomas out of the picture and open up seams.
Meanwhile, the guys McCants and Brewer were supposedly guarding, Kevin Martin and the unheralded John Salmons, went off for 29 points (25 in the second half!) and 19 points. And Spurs (and Wolves) castoff Benno Udrih had a profitable plus +5 running the point in the second half, after the Kings started out-of-position Francisco Garcia at the point due to the absence of Mike Bibby. Such was the juggernaut that handed Minnesota its fifth straight loss.
2. Painted Ugly
Ah, but what about those combined 94 points in the paint this weekend? Yup, that’s a legitimate glass-half-full stat to hang on to. Jefferson is a bona fide bulldog, and both Craig Smith and Theo Ratliff had their moments.
Here’s the rebuttal: The Lakers game on Friday night turned on the fact that Bynum and Odom simply overwhelmed Jefferson and Smith on the occasions when they were the frontcourt matchups. Bynum was simply too big for Jefferson to handle–it is becoming increasing obvious that "Big Al" is big as a power forward but not capable of negating classic NBA centers–and Odom was waaay too quick for Smith. (For that matter, Odom was too big for Gomes, and a matchup nightmare all game, which is why he scored 18 points on only ten shots (7-10 FG), registered 10 boards, didn’t turn the ball over once and finished with a game-high plus +22.) Yes, the Wolves got 42 points in the paint. The Lakers, alas, got 56.
Against the Kings, the problem was more situational–like crunchtime. With 2:42 to play and the Wolves down by just a single point, the Kings grabbed six offensive rebounds on a single possession before Ratliff finally fouled Martin at 2:03. And with the Wolves down three with 10 seconds to go, Brad Miller had a tip-in to ice the game.
On paper, a front court of Ratliff, Jefferson and Gomes would seem to be rock-solid defensively. But the problem is positioning. Theo’s thirst for blocks is a high risk strategy that frequently leaves his team vulnerable to put-backs on the offensive glass. Here’s an amazing stat to chew on: In 123 minutes of play thus far this season, Ratliff has more blocked shots (14) than defensive rebounds (13).
Back to the basic parameters by which fans should judge this team. Looking over the roster, it makes sense that the Wolves should be tenth worst in the NBA in points per game (94.6), because they are minus point guard Randy Foye and, with the likes of Greg Buckner and Marko Jaric in the backcourt supplmenting a front line of Ratliff-Jefferson-Gomes, have the makings of being a pretty good defensive oriented team who needs to depress the score in order to triumph. Consequently, the Wolves’ rank as 9th worst defensive team in points per game allowed (102.8) is the bigger disappointment of the season thus far, especially when you consider that the aforementioned five players rank in the team’s top 6 in minutes played (Telfair, second on the team with 155 minutes, is the other).
One significant problem, for whatever reason, is that the Wolves have had trouble defending the pick and roll. It fosters the surfeit of fouls the team commits, or otherwise yields situations where open midrange jumpers and interior passes for layups become the norm. Perhaps, as against the Lakers, it is a matter of matchups and having to worry about Kobe so much that a talented ‘tweener like Odom can burn you and a big burgeoning galoot like Bynum can make hay cleaning up. But one could hardly accuse the Kings of being stocked with talent, yet they were still able to post a triple-digit score. The Kings, as with every other Wolves opponent, lived on the free throw line, shooting 40 times, including a whopping 30 attempts in the second half. And while it is true tha
t the refs have been stingy and biased about giving Minnesota the calls on offense, most of the whistles against them on D are legitimate. Put simply, this team isn’t moving its feet diligently enough and isn’t building that flowing trust relationship on rotations and other pick-and-roll decisions that create a defensive identity and place a body in front of a defender at the moment a shot is inevitable. Instead, we see the reach-in, the desperate lunge, or the "whistle is better than an automatic bucket" mentality. Blame for that lack of precision and cohesion (which isn’t getting better) starts with the coaching staff and goes right through the team, including Jefferson, who for all his blue-collar effort this season has been lackluster defending the paint.
3. Quick Observations
Sebastian Telfair sure seems like fool’s gold at the moment, if that isn’t overestimating somebody with such a shaky rep. The past two games he’s come off the bench for Jaric and played the entire 4th quarter. Against the Lakers the Wolves were down 14 entering that final period and in that nothing-to-lose circumstance Telfair shot 4-7 FG, including a pair of treys for 10 overall points, and chipped in a pair of assists and two rebounds. Versus the Kings, it was tied with a quarter to play and he missed all four of his shots (1-8 FG for the game) and had one rebound and zero dimes. If he missed ’em all equally in both games we could chalk it up to a lack of skill. But this discrepancy seems psychological–not good for a wannabe NBA point guard.
Gerald Green finally saw some action in that same 4th quarter of the Lakers tilt and immediately showed that he too does not play well with others. Yeah, he nailed a couple of nice jumpers in his 9-plus minutes of action, but also got tunnel-visioned about winning the game himself, resulting in a pair of forced misses and a pair of turnovers. I know he’s scored 33 points before in an NBA game, but without looking, it wouldn’t surprise me if his team lost that night. Here is yet another example of a player who would have greatly benefited from being bossed around–schooled–by an autocrat like Roy Williams, John Thompson or Billy Donovan, rather than grabbing that NBA teenager dough. Among Green, McCants and Brewer, it sure was a sour weekend for smart, disciplined play at the swingman slot.
The exception, of course, is the vet Buckner, who continues to do most of the little things (that I expected and saw out of Gomes until his steps back on the West Coast): Play generous, rotational defense to help his teammates; enhance ball movement; and know how to draw and avoid fouls. Yes, Buck too occasionally gets the shooter’s itch at inopportune moments, no doubt from his exasperation at the prevailing low basketball IQ happening all around on the court, but compared to the gloryhounds with whom he shares the backcourt, he is a paragon of discretion.
Craig Smith was felled by a sprained ankle late in the Kings game, which contributed to the loss, given that Ratliff fouled out and Coach Wittman was forced to use the rook Richard, who promptly ceded Miller’s tip in in the final seconds. Up to then it had been a good game for Smitty, who ranks with Jaric and Gomes thus far this season as inexplicable performers, capable of shining one stint and stinking it up the next. It is too early to know if it is matchups or that he plays better with some teammates than with others, although as On the Ball commenter Andy B noted–and Jim Pete reiterated during the Lakers game–Smitty was better suited to Kevin Garnett’s game than Al Jefferson’s. Nevertheless, what this squad will get out of Smith or Jaric is up to your ouija board. At least Gomes’s doldrums can be attributed at least in part to him missing wide open jumpers and not being able to handle larger players like Odom. The former, at least, will be rectified often before game 82.