The Three Pointer: A Breakthrough W

Home Game #3: Minnesota 108, Sacramento 103

Season Record: 1-5

1. Mea Culpa–For Now

I thought Rashad McCants had a horrible game during last Saturday night’s Wolves loss to the Kings in Sacramento, and quite righteously said so. Thought he was a narcissistic gunner who sabotaged the team’s offensive priority of pounding the ball into Al Jefferson in the paint. And when McCants stubbornly came out playing the same way tonight against these very same Kings at the Target Center–missing two shots and turning the ball over two times before Jefferson even got a touch in the half-court set as the Kings raced to a 7-1 lead in the first two and a half minutes of the first quarter–I started sharpening the knives to slice him up again in this trey.

Except that after that heat check, McCants began looking for Jefferson and others a bit more. And then when he did start gunning again, and pirouetting through the lane, the ball was going in on a pretty regular basis. He finished with a career-high 33 points, on 13-22 FG, 4-7 from beyond the arc and 3-5 from the line. More importantly, that second turnover early in the first period was his last. Jefferson likewise got off, to the tune of 23 points (11-16 FG), including 13 first half points on just eight shots in a glorious display of footwork, shooting touch, and the psycho-physics of ignoring elbows and hands in your face, but it was McCants who made most of the big shots that cinched the victory down the stretch.

I still think this is a risky circumstance. I don’t buy Kent Youngblood’s column in the Strib today, in which Shaddy says "We’re a post-first offense. Our main objective is to get it into Al and play off of that," and adds that he hopes "people will really see what I can do," followed by Youngblood opining, "But he won’t force it." Really? Right after he just compared himself to Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade earlier in the piece? And after we’ve seen him continually force it first, to see if he can take over, and only then defer to Jeff?

Tonight, things worked the way they were supposed to work, with McCants and Jefferson forming a dynamic outside-inside punch that forced the Kings to pick their poison. And there are those who will logically ask, why can’t the team strive for that every game and just play out the hot hand? My response is that young teams create an identity by establishing patterns; and that one key to good team chemistry is a consensual pecking order. McCants has a strong enough sense of self confidence to believe he is the alpha option on offense, and not Jefferson, if his shots are falling early. And yes, that could disrupt the team’s progress this season.

So why is this point called Mea Culpa? Because tonight the Wolves made it work and very effectively rebutted my kvetching. Because the greater lesson, for this game anyway, might well be that Minnesota does indeed have a dynamic scorer on the perimeter who can also take it to the hole, which was far from a sure thing before the season started, and must be taken as a very good sign, or at least a pleasant dilemma, should pecking order questions arise due to McCants’s continued strong production. I can suspect that the risk remains, and the situation won’t last, but those who were chiding me about this last time I brought it up were vindicated by this win. Hats off to both McCants and Jefferson for enabling the other.

 

2. A Veteran’s Poise, and the Serbian Sidekick

Even in this season of the post-Garnett rubble, it wouldn’t be productive for Coach Randy Wittman to just let all the kids play without salting in a few veterans for ballast. (How’s that for a multi-mixed metaphor?) A series of 20, 30, 40 point losses while the rooks and sophs and young newbies to the squad try to read the license plates of the trucks rolling over them isn’t quite the way to engender either confidence or perspective and context. The team needs some poise. And believe it or not, tonight–with Greg Buckner hobbled and Theo Ratliff merely adequate–that means they needed Antoine Walker, who filled the void with grace and intelligence.

Everyone knows that ‘Toine and the Wolves have a footnote relationship, and that even under the best of circumstances, ‘Toine likes doing the big things. such as launching three-pointers and dominating the rock. But tonight he was the balm, the sage, the guy who was more valuable on the court than he appears to be in the box score. He dutifully banged with the Kings’ two very different bruisers, forward Ron Artest and center Brad Miller, and held his own defending against both.

When it was apparent that the Wolves didn’t have numbers in their favor on the fast break, it was Walker who slowed it down and brought the ball back out to set up a play. It was Walker who knew the Wolves had a foul to give–and committed it to waylay a Kings’ play–near the end of the third quarter; Walker who also fouled Miller from behind before he could dispose of an easy putback through the hoop; Walker who drove the lane with the shot clock going down; Walker feeding both Jefferson and Shaddy and fostering ball movement in general. He finished with 19 points in 29:33, plus a pair of steals and four rebounds. Given that his presence on the Wolves means that Ricky Davis and Mark Blount have taken their dysfunction to Miami, any other positives he produces for the rest of the season is all gravy.

Some might wonder why I didn’t cite Marko Jaric as the veteran poise tonight. After all, he’s been with the team much longer than Walker, plays the point, and had a game-high plus +12 and a game-high 8 rebounds in 25:24. The quick answer is that Marko is not poise, not balm, not sage. I suspect you will cut him much more slack and like him a lot better if you realize he is not a leader in most any way. He is, however a glorious sidekick when you’re bent on stoking an adrenaline rush. When bodies are flying around and the ballclub is in that sweet, overlapping zone in the venn diagram of being loosey-goosey and razor-sharp, Jaric thrives like no other and winds up being a super character actor in the prevailing drama. Tonight, given the added advantage of matching up against Slovenian Beno Udrih, whose game Jaric almost surely knows well, he was a large pain in the Kings’ posterior, crashing the boards, diving on the floor for loose balls, snatching a pair of steals and dropping three dimes on his teammates.

 

3.The Boon of Defensive Aggression and other Quick Takes

Last Saturday the Wolves limited the Kings to just 40.5% shooting (30-74) and 100 points. Tonight Sacramento shot 50% (39-78) and scored 103 points. Yet I think Minnesota’s defense was more effective tonight. The reason? Pick and roll defense. "We worked on it this week and decided to just be aggressive," Wittman said in the postgame press conference. "Before we were playing one part soft and then one part aggressive." Sometimes this varied approach confuses the opposition. But it also brings forth a cascade of whistles from the refs.

Flip Saunders used to preach that "the more aggressive team gets the calls." In other words, if you are consistently laying a body on somebody and dogging their every dribble, the refs become accustomed to it and consider it part of your "normal" defense. But if you play loose or soft on one play and aggressively the next, the disparity is heightened and is the aggression seems harsher.

Coming into tonight’s game, the Wolves had been hamstrung by an exorbitant disparity in fouls, and thus free throws. Opponents were getting to the line an average of 30 times; the Wolves, just 13. Obviously, that’s a huge disadvantage. Tonight, the Wolves were pretty much on their standard pace, generating 12 before the Kings were forced to foul in attempt to overcome a fairly big deficit late in the game, resulting in an additional ten free throws for the Wolves in the final minute and four┬áseconds of play. But
the real difference was that the Wolves enabled the Kings to get to the line only 14 times, or less than half the season average for Wolves opponents. Yes, the Kings made more field goals and ultimately more points in tonight’s second meeting than as compared to Saturday’s game, but there is something energy sucking and momentum-depressing about frequent stoppages in play that allow opponents to score when the clock isn’t ticking. Making hard, aggressive "shows" on the pick-and-roll, and then sustaining that aggressive approach to the end of the play reduced the whistles. So did better footwork and a slightly more lenient officiating crew.

Randy Wittman coached a good game from the sidelines, voicing his verbal displeasure more frequently in the first half at a plethora of mental mistakes, and deploying a crisp rotation schedule that had nine different playing logging at least 20 minutes of action. But even the mere 3:42 that second-round pick and backup center Chris Richard received is instructive of Witt’s acumen. Richard subbed in to be matched against another, younger rookie in Sac center Spencer Hawes. In addition, Richard’s college teammate Corey Brewer was with him on the floor during his stint and assisted on a nifty pick and roll that resulted in a Richard slam dunk. Nice of the coach to give the kid an optimal chance to succeed.

Point guard Sebastian Telfair had one of those inexplicable games where he recorded eight assists and three steals in merely 20:13, yet still seemed inept at decision-making and ineffectual on defense en route to a team-worst minus-3.

Finally, I never would have thought that less than three weeks into the season scrappy rook Corey Brewer would be giving currently moribund vet Ryan Gomes a run for his money at the starting small forward position.