Abbreviated Three-Pointer: Same Lesson, Another Loss

Game #20, Road Game #10: Minnesota 94, Philadelphia 98

Season record: 3-17
 

1. This Just In: Al Jefferson Has Problems With Big Centers

The most valuable player in last night Wolves loss to Washington was opposing center Brendan Haywood, who was too much to handle for the tandem power forwards, Craig Smith and Al Jefferson, Minnesota deployed in its frontcourt. Tonight’s most valuable player in the Wolves’ loss to Philadelphia was opposing center Samuel Dalembert, who was too much to handle for the tandem power forwards, Craig Smith and Al Jefferson, Minnesota deployed, albeit slightly less often, in its frontcourt. Believe me, reading those two redundant sentences is less annoying than watching two redundant losses.

Dalembert had 9 blocked shots, tying a Wolves’ franchise record for an opposing shot swatter. Five of those rejections, including the play that could have tied the game for Minnesota in the final seconds, came on shots by Jefferson, the gifted power forward compelled to play out of position because coach Randy Wittman wants to use his little bucking bronco frontcourt of Jefferson, Craig Smith and Corey Brewer. Against some teams–Atlanta and Phoenix are recent examples–this is a fine strategy. But against those with large, strong centers–the Lakers, the Wizards and now the 76ers qualify–Minnesota is overmatched.

Jefferson battled all night, finishing with 22 points (10-20 FG, 2-5 FT) and 11 rebounds, 6 on the offensive glass. But once again, the plus/minus stat tonight is a reliable barometer of what really happened. Jefferson and rookie Chris Richard split the center position. In 31:49, Jefferson was a team worst minus -20 in a four point loss. In the other 17:11, Richard was a team best plus +16. He put that time to good use, with a pair a steals, a pair of blocks, and a pair of baskets in a pair of attempts. If only he had been paired with Jefferson once or twice so "Big Al" could have played the position he was meant to play.

Is this the way it is going to be for the rest of the season? Of the four centers on Minnesota’s roster, Theo Ratliff may be taking millions in insurance not to play on that suspiciously balky knee; Michael Doleac is a journeyman; Mark Madsen is game but undersized; and Richard is a rookie. Nevertheless, it is unfair to Jefferson and to the team to ride the Smith-Jefferson power forward train when seven-footers are having a field day in the paint. Right now, I’d see if Richard’s past couple of weeks of impressive action in limited usage can be extended. I think Minnesota can get by with the two PFs against Seattle and Milwaukee. But when they go to Miami to meet Shaq and the boys, it would seem foolhardy not to go with a center by committee.

2. Free throw woes

With 1:15 left to go in the third quarter, the game was tied at 73. For the final 13:15, Minnesota shot 4-8 from the free throw line; Philadelphia was 7-8, according for 3/4 of its margin of victory. For the game, Minnesota had more field goals and three-pointers than the Sixers, but lost it at the free throw line, going 16-25 while Philly made 25 out of 31 attempts. When asked after the game how he would assess his squad’s 64% free throw shooting, Wittman responded, "There is nothing to assess. We’re a good free throw shooting team."

Um, no they aren’t. Even before tonight’s clanking at the charity stripe, Minnesota ranked 23rd among the 30 teams in FT%, making a hair over 72% when the league average is better than 75%. Similar disinformation appears at nba.com, where Jefferson’s All Star credentials are buttressed with this statement: "Big Al has added a reliable free throw to his arsenal." Okay, if you count 69.1% as reliable. It is better than any of his previous three seasons, and he has shown steady improvement from 63% his rookie year to 64.2% and then 68.1% last year.

 

Bottom line, despite everything else, if the Wolves make their free throws tonight they probably win the game.

 

3. Quick hits

Another double-digit assist outing for Sebastian Telfair, with 11 dimes versus only two turnovers. And Marko Jaric bounced back from an off night in Washington to put up 14 points on only 7 shots (4-7 FG, 6-8 FT).

The general consensus is that the bench did a great job, and it is true that McCants, Gomes, Walker and of course Richard all had strong moments. But only McCants really seems to have consciously improved his ball movement recently, and even he is prone to egregious lapses where he starts firing away. The beautiful offensive flow of the last three quarters of the Atlanta game and the Phoenix upset has been pretty much absent.

There’s plenty more to say: Have at it, and I’ll be back with a look at Friday’s tilt versus Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and the Sonics sometime over the weekend.