Abbreviated Trey: Still Going Down

Game #24, Home Game #12: Golden State 111, Minnesota 98

Season Record: 3-21

First, a confession: An interview for another story I’m working on lasted much longer than anticipated, and as it turned out, I walked into Target Center at halftime, with the Wolves holding an 8-point lead. Thus, I only saw the collapse and don’t feel it fair to rip into performances without the context of what was apparently some inspired play, particularly from the recently maligned Rashad McCants, who got off for 13 in the first period and then four dimes and another six points in the second. Yeah, he was going up against Golden State and Nellyball, but those numbers seem to (at least temporarily) rebut my contention that McCants can’t score within the flow of the team’s offense.

I don’t imagine me missing the first half is what Kelly Dwyer was hoping the future of sportswriting would be like. I don’t know Mr. Dwyer but was incredibly flattered by his generous praise in a column he wrote earlier today, and wish to publicly thank him. Before we drop the subject so it doesn’t go any further to my head, I just want to repeat that it is the quality of the comments on this blog and the knowledge that smart people are reading me that provides much of the enthusiasm that people enjoy in my work.

1. Wittman Raises The Ante

Randy Wittman angrily called out his team in the postgame press conference, essentially calling them spineless, and chokers. The coach again invoked the fighting analogy, claiming that when the team gets hit in the mouth it doesn’t fight back, and going so far as to say the team "would not allow people to do that to them in the parking lot." Earlier he had pretty much hollared, "At some point we have to man up, stand up and say `Enough is enough!’" The coach further added that when he called time out with 8:34 to go in the third, "their body language said it all to me…their heads were down." He noted it was something the team "had been fighting all year," specifically citing the 8 point halftime lead tonight, the six point halftime lead Monday in Miami, and the 15 point first quarter lead last week at home against Seattle–all for naught in three losses.

I understand Witt is competitive, and increasingly frustrated. These losses are like water drips from a faucet when you’re trying to sleep–they’ll drive you temporarily crazy. But calling out a team is the coaching equivalent of firing a bullet–there are only so many chambers in that gun, and he needs to use them wisely. The season is 24 games old–58 to go–and the Wolves were without Foye, Ratliff, Walker, Jaric (felled by the flu) and Buckner tonight, while Craig Smith and Corey Brewer were both reportedly feeling ill.

Now consider what Wittman is quoted as saying in today’s Strib. First, on Corey Brewer’s shooting woes: "He’s putting himself in trouble, driving the ball into trouble…He’s [taking] bad shots because he’s turning down an open 18-footer and dribbling in for a worse shot." In the next graph, the Strib reported that Witt talked to Jaric after Tuesday’s practice–about regaining his aggressiveness. "He needs to get it back. I don’t know why it left…It is hard for a coach to call on a guy when he’s showing no aggression."

Got that? Corey Brewer needs to stop driving to the hoop and pull up for 18 footers but if you’re not aggressive, it is going to be hard for you to get in the game. I know Brewer and Jaric are two very different players and he was addressing them separately. But a day after being told to be more aggressive, Jaric is probably cradling the toilet–do you remember how you feel about yourself during that process? Like a baby. Meanwhile, Brewer shot 4-12 FG, which actually boosts his season FG%. Half his shots, but alas, only one of his makes, were from outside the paint.

Leaving aside the timing of Wittman’s diatribe, he is at least half-right in questioning the gumption and self-confidence of his ballclub as it spits up leads. No matter how young or untalented an NBA is, when it yields 15 baskets in 20 shots, as the Wolves did during the third period tonight, it is a half-assed effort. But shoddy defense wasn’t Minnesota’s only undoing–once again, turnovers played a major role, and contributed to easy transition baskets that made the D look worse. After turning the ball over just twice in the entire first half, the Wolves coughed it up 7 times in a 6:15 span early in the third–and 5 different players were the culprits. I’m not sure questioning a team’s manhood and daring a squad to stand up and say "enough is enough" is going to reduce turnovers. The defense, on the other hand, could use a little of that macho swagger, as well as better cohesion.

Wittman vowed to figure out how to fix things, which inevitably brings us back to the fact that he is the coach of a team that constantly blows leads and otherwise fails to take advantage of eminently winnable games. On the one hand, what can legitimately be expected of a ballclub without Foye and Ratliff, starting two guys–Brewer and Telfair– who are legitimately suspect shooters who must prove they have to be guarded; an undersized center and power forward if Jefferson and Smith are the tandem, and a mercurial shooting guard? On the other hand, is the aforementioned lineup, plus the likes of Jaric, Gomes, Richard and Walker off the bench, more likely to respond to the carrot or the stick. On this question, I’m a vegetarian.

Bottom line, the Timberwolves won’t fire Wittman until the end of the year at the earliest–otherwise that is three coaches dumped during the regular season three of the last four years, which would be a loud and damning indictment of front office incompetence in at least two or three different ways. But with a mark of 2-19 to go with last year’s 12-30, Wittman needs to watch how loudly he yells "Enough is enough."

2. Another Gerald Green Sighting

Gerald Green had a relatively lovely stat line: 18 points on 6-13 FG, including 4-8 from beyond the arc, and 8 rebounds in 30:10. But I am forced to repeat that the kid is lost on defense. Seventeen seconds after he entered in the third quarter, Stephen Jackson had him swatting at air while executing a layup. Rare were the occasions when Green was properly face up on a man; much more often he was running at the shooter, caught in mid-leap to commit the foul or enable the penetration, or dashing over to the bench to ask what the hell to do when the Wolves went into what looked like a matchup zone. Again, the cavaet is that I didn’t see the 16:04 GG played in the first half, when he knocked in 10 points and grabbed five boards.

3. Quick Hits

When I saw Craig Smith gasping for air with 8:12 remaining in the third, I scrawled an angry note about his conditioning and not being ready for Golden State’s pace, only to later learn he is probably ill.

Al Harrington had a monster night, getting 14 in the third on 5-5 FG and finishing with a game-best plus +27 in 30:43. Just for grins, it would be nice to see if Chris Richard could handle a guy like Harrington, who goes 6-9 250 but can play on the perimeter. Smith is too slow, Brewer too light, making Ryan Gomes the best bet. But Richard, who got only 4:52 all night anyway, might have been a good experiment.

So, McCants only went 2-6 FG with one rebound and 2 assists in 21:11 of the second half and I still thought he played well, especially as the main defender on Baron Davis. Anyone want to rave about that first half?

Bassy Telfair played the entire second half against Golden State’s murderous pace with predictible results: 1-9 FG, four turnovers.