The Three Pointer: Blown Opportunity

Road Game #4: Minnesota 93, Denver 99

Season Record 1-9

1. Time To Get Angry

Okay, that’s about enough patience, enough leeway for a basketball team that is playing with stupidity as well as incompetence, and showing very little character in the process. During the off-season, Kevin McHale remarked that any team that really plays hard and within themselves can win nearly forty games a season just by picking up a dozen or more victories left lying around by opponents that for one reason or another don’t bother to show up. Well, Denver didn’t show up tonight. The Nuggets knew they had allowed themselves to get down by double digits in the Wolves’ season opener in Minnesota and still managed to tuck the game away in the second half. And so they played without respecting the Wolves; jacking up a lot of dumb shots from the perimeter, not defending with vigor, and generally lazing around until there was 2:45 left and the Wolves were up by 3. Then, after plopping himself on the bench like a somnambulant toad for the entire game, Nuggets coach George Karl called a timeout and presumably told his squad that it was time to expend the requisite energy to put this sorry Minnesota squad where it belongs, cluelessly flying back home with a .100 winning percentage.

It was all Fox Sports analyst Mike McCollow could do not to blatantly rip the Wolves; the disgusted look on his face and his accurate statement that Denver "laid an egg tonight," said it all. And if it didn’t, the postgame interview with Denver’s Eduardo Najera–who has more grit than any three Timberwolves combined–sealed it. "We came out flat; I don’t know what it was," Najera said with a grin and a shake of his head. "Maybe we ate too much for the holiday." He was apologizing for the six-point triumph.

Let’s start calling people out. Rashad McCants played like a punk, like a kid who, despite all evidence, refuses to believe he’s not the best thing on the playground. McCants shot 1-15 from the field, a stat uglier in reality than it is on paper. His only make was a waltzing, uncontested layup after a teammate made a steal and delivered him the ball while Denver conceded the hoop. Of the 14 misses, maybe 3 or 4 were in the paint, and at least one of those was a stumbling toss-up prayer after McCants drove expecting a foul that never came. That leaves about ten jumpers, the sort of chemistry-corroding shots that would have had his teammates irked at Wittman for not sitting him if McCants hadn’t benched himself with a series of fouls. He got to the line just three times; once after a technical foul on Denver, and once on the next possession after Wittman explicitly instructed his squad during a timeout that they needed to take it to the hoop. Otherwise, nada.

Since his 33-point breakout against Sacramento, Shaddy has converted 15 shots (in 57 attempts) and committed 16 turnovers. Over the last three games, he has mounted a 8-41 brickfest–less than 20% shooting. His defense tonight was actually good in spots, but his offense game was so ugly, so selfish, that it is hard to give him credit for that positive contribution.

Al Jefferson is an easy player to love for his precocious footwork, realistic self-assessments of his foibles, and strong work ethic. But aside from his low-post offense, Jefferson remains woefully inconsistent. He can be a bulldog on the boards for two possessions and a negligent terrier the next. He can flash hard on the pick and roll two out five times, and bollocks it up the other three. He can spot open teammates out of the looming double team two or three times per period, but might as well be wearing blinders 60-70 percent of the time. On top of all that the recent injury to Theo Ratliff has further exposed him as being a converted power forward instead of a center when he’s forced to play the pivot. Despite all the good things he does and the admirable way he acts, there is a reason why he was a game-worst minus -14 tonight and the Nugs’ center Marcus Camby was a game-best plus +16.

Neither Sebastian Telfair nor Marko Jaric can be a starting point guard on a successful team–it just won’t happen. There is a point guard gene missing–a different one in each player. Telfair can provide pace and a probing spirit with his passes; Jaric has marvelous hands and good anticipation on defense, and was one of the precious few Timberwolves that heeded Wittman’s admonition to penetrate into the paint. But past failures have fed the demons in both of their psyches, and there are glaring flaws in each of their games that inevitably buzz kill their most painstaking efforts at kindling some personal momentum. Put it this way: You don’t want either one of them bringing the ball up against a zone trap, and you don’t want either one of them with the ball in their hands in the closing seconds of a game with their team down a deuce. And that, folks, are precisely the two situations when point guard play is most crucial. The Nuggets deployed a full court press that coughed the ball from Telfair twice late in the first half, likely robbing the Wolves of a double-digit lead at intermission. Jaric, as I say, actually played one of his better games, but he’s been in the league long enough to know what you’ve got and it’s not enough to fortify this callow squad. There are roles for both Jaric and Telfair, but all the opportunities that Randy Foye’s injury have provided dramatize that those roles should be smaller than the ones they currently occupy.

2. The Better Gomes

Ryan Gomes also belongs on the "disappointing enough to be pissed at him" list thus far this season, but it took one of his vintage games tonight to remind us of how far he’d out of our consciousness. Before the season started, I expected Gomes to be the Wolves’ second-best player behind Jefferson. He fulfilled that promise for the first time in more than two weeks by toting up 18 points in less than 25 minutes simply by flowing in the course of the offense–moving without the ball, and seeking out seams in the opposing defense in a way that Flip Saunders would salivate over and utilize to the tune of 20 points per game if he had him. Or maybe not, because Gomes has clanked way too many wide open jumpers this year. Tonight he made 7-13 FG, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. His defense on Melo Anthony game but only partially effective–Melo’s 31 points on 22 shots were boosted by a hot hand early (6-7 FG on mostly contested jumpers in the first period) and trips to the line late (11-11 FTs for the game).

Which Gomes will we see over the next few games? The Wolves desperately need it to be the Good Gomes, because the the schedule ahead is road-wearying and folks who "play the game right" are at a premium.

3. A Plus and a Minus

For about the fifth or sixth time in this brief season, Antoine Walker demonstrated more competitive spunk and both blatant and subtle court savvy than anyone else in a Wolves uni. One might even think the dude is playing to earn himself a ticket to a contender later in the first few months of 2008. It is probably poetic justice that ‘Toine must endure McCants’s pig-headedness, having had his own bouts on many occasions early in his career. Even tonight, his 15 point first half bore an interesting stat within the stat–1-5 from outside the arc, 5-5 shooting two-pointers. It should also be noted that Walker is getting a lot of his points and rebounds using his half-court quickness against opposing power forwards, an advantage that is quickly reversed when the big boys take him into the paint at the other end of the court. Kenyon Martin more than doubled his 7.9 ppg average with 18 tonight.

See the theme? Walker at the 4 and Jefferson at the 5 are both overmatched on defense, but Walker is one of very few Wolves who can not only get his own shot, but create one for a teammate in the half court, especially because he understands how opponents will concentrate on Big Al and space himself accordingly.

Yes, it is true that Minnesota really misses Foye and Ratliff, and the failure of players to fill those voids is valuable, if depressing, information for the future. But it must also be said that this squad is *not"–repeat *not* making progress, a fact dramatized by the opening night opponent playing demonstrably worse in their Game 10 rematch and winning just as handily. Almost any NBA player can jump up and have a good game, or two or three good games over a 10 game span. But the glimmers of consistency, the slow but steady signs of progress, are what this 2007-08 must be all about.

And where are they? Did Corey Brewer get a mere 2:04 tonight because Gomes were going well, because he’s now missed four free throws in a row, because that late to practice stunt still has him in Witt’s doghouse, or because the past two opponents have been LeBron and Melo? Why is Mark Madsen a better bet to start versus Camby than Michael Doleac, who is larger and has more range on his jumper (which is to say he can shoot one)? Has anybody yo-yo’d in minutes and productivity like Craig Smith, who led the Wolves with a plus +8 tonight and had 5 rebounds to go with his 7 points (3-6 FG) but only got 15:52 (likely another victim of the Walker-Jefferson tandem)? Is McCants going through a rough patch or going down for the third time? What do we really know about this team other than they have won once in their first ten games and let an indifferent opponent that had contempt for their ability loiter through the motions and then, after the coach finally sounded the alarm, tromp down the throttle and outscore them 15-4 in the final 2:45?

It’s not cute anymore.