Home Game #1: Denver 99, Wolves 91
Road Game #1 Wolves 93, New York Knicks 97
1. Egos in the Backcourt
For people who imagined that the Timberwolves might surprise the dour prognosticators and post thirty wins or more this season, it was probably a frustrating opening weekend to the 2007-08 campaign. But for those of us intrigued by the olio of young and old skill sets on this squad and how they might be sifted, culled and exposed to the harsh light of competition, it was a mostly pleasurable experience; one that indicates that our curiosity might continue to be piqued and our hoops aesthetic not completely insulted.
Or, in less lofty parlance, this team has come out of training camp pulling for each other and squeakin’ their sneakers with hustle. Coach Randy Wittman doesn’t seem like the clueless sideline stalker and hypocritically faux disciplinarian he portrayed last season. There’s much to laud, and to wince at. Above all, the first two games were neither dull nor hopeless.
One bit of good news is that both members of the starting backcourt, Sebastian Telfair and Rashad McCants, have shown up eager to play. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to make them forget how. Both have been hyped and hated on during their brief careers, both have recently been handed a golden opportunity (the Foye injury and the Davis trade), and both know they have a declining window of time (for Telfair it may be a matter of weeks) to justify a significant role on this team. Consequently, both find it difficult to resist the impulse to take matters into their own hands.
Their offenses aren’t equal. To my mind, McCants has the bigger upside and better future, yet he’s actually been a more egregious disrupter of controlled, intelligent, team basketball. During the Wolves’ opening night loss to the Nuggets, Shaddy frequently drove into traffic or otherwise strove to make the great play when a mundane one, let alone good, would have better served the ballclub. The result was five turnovers, four fouls, and a lousy minus-9 in 29:47. Versus the Knicks it was more foul trouble, resulting in his disqualification halfway through the fourth period and just 22 minutes of PT overall (he was minus-2). Furthermore, Shaddy was extremely unhappy with the way the game was being called against him, and petulantly stood with his hands on his hips, not sitting down, after going to the sidelines with his sixth foul.
Yes, the free throw disparity has been glaring–the Wolves were outshot at the line 38-19 on Friday and a whopping 39-10 tonight–and some of it is disrespect for young no-names by the refs. But McCants also isn’t displaying the sort of fundamentally sound defense he often flexed last season, and that seems to happen more often when his shot if falling and he’s more prominent on offense (he been 9-18 and 5-11 from the field in about 52 total minutes thus far this year). He isn’t moving his feet as well and he’s more apt to go for the high-risk, high-reward play like a steal, blocked shot, or taking a charge. It’s not incurable, and when he does work within the flow of the offense, he’s proving to be a potent scorer who may be putting some of those microfracture aftermath worries to rest, so even a slight attitude adjustment and dialing down of the ego would be benefical all the way around.
Telfair has on balance been a pleasant eye-opener, especially compared to the prevailing opinion of his game when the Wolves first acquired him in the Garnett trade from Boston. On opening day, he did a decent job on Allen Iverson (albeit was less stellar when AI and Mike Wilks comprised a small backcourt tandem in the fourth quarter), coming up with three steals and registering a mere minus-1 in 35:17 of an eventual eight-point loss. Tonight agains the Knicks, it was seven assists and zero turnovers (for a composite 12/3 assist/turnover ratio thus far) and a nifty plus +5 in 36:58 of a four point loss.
But missed shots can be akin to turnovers, especially when you’re the point guard assigned with the task of getting your more accurate shooting and advantageously matched-up teammates the rock. Telfair is a career .387 shooter who has never converted 40 percent of his heaves in any of his three NBA seasons. In the third quarter tonight he received a nice, creative feed from Al Jefferson (a rare occurrence), blew the layup, and then immaturely strained to atone by driving into traffic and hoisting an airball on the very next possession. For the season he is 8-27 FG, with no free throw attempts, in a combined 72:15 of action while Jefferson is 14-29 FG in 74:49. In other words, the bricklaying point guard is shooting at almost exactly the same frequency as the meat-and-potatoes franchise cornerstone who is supposed to be the focus, and primary locus, of the offense.
2. Theo The Magnificent–At One End of the Court
The Nuggets-Wolves tilt Friday night was one of the more enjoyable games performed at Target Center in recent years, and the primary entertainment was watching a pair of defensive masters, Denver’s Marcus Camby and Minnesota’s Theo Ratliff, ply their craft. Nobody was getting anything unscathed in the paint, and when Melo Anthony went straight at Ratliff for an attempted slam, Theo met him well above the rim and almost earned a non-call for the graceful control of the sky-wire ballet on the collision.
Ratliff owns three NBA shot-blocking titles and Camby is the reigning champ, but both also know position defense, and the subtler intimidation of looming without committing and risking a foul. Whenever one of them went to the sidelines, the other team seemed to enjoy a huge advantage, and when both rested, the incredible intensity that seemed to pervade the game mostly drained away. Except for a 31 second stint at the very end of the game, Wittman always substituted Craig Smith in for Ratliff. Smith was a team worst minus-15 in 18:12, while Ratliff was a team-best plus +7 in 29:16.
Ratliff also seemed thoroughly integrated in the Wolves’ offense on Friday, with ten FGA and a team-high 9 FTA in 29:16. It made some sense because Denver had obviously scouted Minnesota enough to know that priorities one and two were taking the ball out of Jefferson’s hands, and with Camby and Najera and Nene and K-Mart, they had the guile and muscle to work the agenda. But Ratliff still seems best suited for a small modicum of touches, for a variety of reasons: At 34 and coming off back surgery (and two other operations before that), you want him conserving his energy for what he does best, which is at the defensive end of the court. Second, Ratliff is a one-year rental, and while it is wonderful to have him enable a little risk and confidence for his teammates on D, no point in habitualizing anything he does on offense. Besides, at best he is merely adequate at generating points.
After the Denver game, I asked Wittman if he called any plays for Theo. He replied that with all Ratliff contributes, he does call his number every now and then. But I think Ratliff is mature enough and cognizant enough of his own strengths and weaknesses, to understand why he’d be utilized almost completely for his defensive prowess. In any case, Theo turned the ball over four times tonight, at a time when Jefferson had turgid defender Zach Randolph guarding him. Sure, Ratliff’s man Eddy Curry is equally inept on D, but the point is, Minnesota needs to establish the long and the short term habit of force-feeding Jefferson, particularly when the matchup is so skewed in his favor. Ratliff should be rewarded for running the floor, as happened tonight when he beat Curry in transition for a slam dunk, and when he’s wide open because of the attention Jefferson draws. But it wouldn’t bother me, or seem inappropriate, for Ratliff to adopt an offensive identity very similar to what Ervin Johnson executed during Minnesota’s most successful season a few years back–as a very infrequent, but sneakily effect
ive option when teams totally ignored him down in the paint.
But in any case, if you enjoy lunch-bucket defense from a wily, still extraordinarily wiry maestro in the paint, Ratliff is perhaps the best reason to attend a Wolves game. Catch him while he’s still healthy.
3. Quick Hits
Ryan Gomes got into some foul trouble guarding Melo on Friday, but he completely snuffed out Quinton Richardson against the Knicks. Richardson was scoreless in 29:53; Gomes led the Wolves with 19 points in 36:03. On the other hand, Greg Buckner looked like a world beater, and maybe a mob henchman, for the way he bodied up Melo and meted out a couple of choice fouls down near the hoop Friday. But against the Knicks, unless the Wolves’ pick and roll rotations got screwed up or someone blew an assignment not apprarent to the folks in the stands, Buckner regularly got toasted off dribble penetration by Jamal Crawford.
The learning curve for Corey Brewer looks to be long and slow. It is a tad disconcerting to see how lost the 7th pick in the NBA, a three-year collegian, looked in his first two games.
Sound observations from others: Jim Petersen commented about how sluggish the pace became when Marko Jaric subbed in as point guard for Telfair. Pete also ripped Jaric for his perpetualy whining attitude and unhappiness over his role on the team. And in media row on Friday, KFAN/Vikings/Canterbury voice Paul Allen approvingly pointed out the nastier enforcement edge the Wolves seemed to be adopting after a flagrant foul by Jaric was followed by a hard foul by Buckner.