Three-Pointer: Burning The Tired Suns

Game #18, Home Game #10: Phoenix 93, Minnesota 100

Season record: 3-15

1. Sweat Equity

I’ll let some mathematician figure out the odds of a 2-15 team triumphing over a 16-4 ballclub, as happened last night at the Target Center. But whatever the probability, it plummets when you factor in that Phoenix was not only on the tail end of a back-to-back, but playing its fifth road game of the week. And it drops further when the scrappy underdog outrebounds the elite roadrunners 55-33, contesting nearly every one of its own missed shots (Minnesota had 19 rebounds on its own glass compared to 25 for the Suns) and dominating their defensive boards by a 36-8 margin.

By the 4th quarter, Phoenix was spent, registering their worst scoring period (13 points) of the season en route to their lowest scoring game. After watching his teammates fail to convert his feeds for much of the third quarter and the first 3 minutes of the 4th, the phenomenal Steve Nash went off for 8 points in 2:13 to bring the Suns within 4 at 91-87 with plenty of time, 6:56, left to play. But Phoenix wouldn’t score again for six minutes, until Grant Hill drove for a layup with 52 seconds on the clock. For the period, Nash was 3-7 FG (2-4 3ptFG) and the rest of the team was 1-13 FG.

Minnesota also scored 13 points in the final period, meaning the teams combined for more points in the first 6:03 of the game as in the last twelve minutes. After the game, interim coach Jerry Sichting, and players Al Jefferson and Marko Jaric all remarked that the Wolves were run ragged and feeling tired in those first 5-6 minutes, but that blazing pace, combined with the Suns’ recent schedule and the Wolves’ dedicated energy at both ends of the court, simply overwhelmed one of the three or four best team in the NBA.

2. The New Rotation

In the past seven quarters of play, Minnesota has outscored Atlanta by 13 and Phoenix by 7, merging a few promising tandems and combinations into a solid and effective rotation. Jaric and Sebastian Telfair have produced enough of a sample size now to demonstrate that they are indeed a synergistic pair together in the backcourt; and Corey Brewer, who has worked well with Telfair all year, has suddenly slotted in nicely in the frontcourt alongside Craig Smith and Al Jefferson. Sichting properly demurred when asked if this starting quintet was together to stay, noting the squad was 3-15 and future tinkering is inevitable. What he didn’t say is that the ballclub remains woefully young and was up against a deservedly overconfident Hawks squad that had come back from 21 to beat the Wolves last month and were up 19 in the first period this time, and a dog-tired Phoenix team who relies on aerobics more than any franchise in the league.

Okay, enough cavaets. Let’s look at why this group is playing so well. The two pieces that haven’t changed are Jefferson and either Jaric or Telfair at the point. Of the other three spots, those losing time are Rashad McCants, Ryan Gomes, and one of the centers in the committee. Those benefiting from the new world order are Brewer, Smith, and the Telfair/Jaric combo.

What do these changes create? The first thing that jumps out is rebounding. Brewer’s nonstop motor enables him to defend the perimeter and still slash for defensive boards; Smith is the opposite, a player whose forte is grinding for position on the offensive glass. With at least one sidekick pounding the glass at either end, there is less boxing out of Jefferson. The result is that in the past seven quarters, Minnesota has grabbed 81 percent of the eligible rebounds on its defensive boards and 42 percent of the caroms on their own missed shots. In the past two games, Smith has 12 offensive rebounds, Brewer has 24 on the defensive end and Jefferson has battled for enough of the leftovers to average 14 rpg.

Second, anyone who has watched the past two games has seen the team penetrate far more frequently, feed the post players far more frequently, and try and dribble or otherwise create space for jump shots far less often. This is not surprising: the two guys whose minutes have been curtailed, McCants and Gomes, were among most likely to short-circuit ball movement by clanging a jumper instead of putting it on the floor and getting a layup or foul. Ditto veteran Greg Buckner, and, to only a slightly lesser extent, injured veteran Antoine Walker. In order, Walker-McCants-Gomes-Buckner lead the Wolves in attempted treys, which only partially explains these horrible overall FG percentages: Walker 41.9%; McCants 42.8; Gomes 38.9%, and Buckner 37.4%. Yup, a notoroious bricklayer like Telfair is outshooting all of them at 43.4%, putting pace in the game to justify his low rate, which is  easily absorbed when playing alongside Craig Smith (58.8%), Jaric (50.4%) and Jefferson (49.1%).

The obvious exception is Brewer, who continues to stumble along at a woeful 31% from the field, and the offensive flaw in this lineup has been Brewer’s proclivity to shoot–it is almost worth invoking the Eddie Griffin rule that Brewer not be allowed to chuck it unless the shot clock is about to expire or he’s wide open from 12 feet or less. On the other hand, Brewer not only rebounds better than Gomes, McCants and Buckner, but is much better at fostering productive ball movement. His assist to turnovers in 346 minutes thus far this season is 25/14. By contrast, Gomes has just three more assists and nearly twice as many turnovers in 90 more minutes (28/25 in 436 minutes); Buckner is 32/24 in 387 minutes, and McCants is 24/44 in 405 minutes.

Bottom line, you’ve got a lineup of three guys–Telfair, Jaric, and Brewer–who look to dish and penetrate (in that order), and two guys, Jefferson and Smith, who are pretty much black holes in terms of passing the ball back out (tho’ Jeff is ever so slowly but surely improving on that) but who shoot at a high percent in the paint.

The result of all this is a lineup that best creates the template for the sort of "smashmouth" basketball Wolves VP of Personnel Kevin McHale envisioned when he razed the team and brought in a majority of new young talent during the off-season. You have guys looking to pound the ball inside to Jefferson and Smith. Those same guys can all penetrate to the hoop. And you’ve got five guys who all like to mix it up to some extent.

Last night, Jefferson destroyed Amare Stoudemire as completely as I’ve ever seen, going off for a career-tying 32 points, a season high 20 rebounds, 4 steals and even two assists in 42:02, versus Stoudemire’s 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 34:08. Meanwhile, Smith cut Shawn Marion’s rebounding total to nearly half his season average–6 boards for a guy who came in getting 11.3 per game.

The abiding question is, can this group be nearly as effective against less advantageous matchups? Next up is Washington, whose Brendan Haywood gave Jefferson fits the last time they played, and who also have Darius Songalia as a solid backup, plus a power forward, Antawn Jamison, who can make Smith look foolish out on the perimeter. After that, Philly, Seattle and Milwaukee seem like decent but manageable tests, but then Shaq and the Heat are on the docket a week from Monday.

Keep an eye on Chris Richard. While this site has debated the limitations of Jefferson against viable centers and discussed Doleac versus Madsen as alternatives, Richard has been coming on. Last night he played a season-high 9:41 and more than held his own, registering a plus +5. His affinity with his double-ring teammate Brewer is a definite advantage for both, and he seems to offer a middle ground between Madsen’s frantic but effective scrambling on defense and Doleac’s tall and slow but savvy play. By now, the book has been written on Doleac and Madsen, their pros and cons well documented and not likely to change much. But Richard, well, isn’t putting the barometer on his NBA readiness the kind of thing this season is all about?

3. No, Don’t Fire Wittman. But Praise Sichting O
n A Job Well
Done

An assistant-cum-interim coach successfully filling in for the head coach is probably the closest thing the NBA has to a quarterback and backup quarterback situation. Like most backups who appear to have outperformed the starter, Sichting is probably stirring a little anti-Wittman animus from those who haven ‘t forgotten his rotten performance after taking over the Dwane Casey last year. Personally, I’m not in the mood for it. Sichting came back to Minnesota this season specifically, and almost solely, out of respect and loyalty to Wittman, and he has taken pains to remind everyone that he is in constant consultation with Witt before, during and after practices and games. Al Jefferson likewise lobbied for Wittman by talking about working on the things Witt has harped about, such as passing out of double teams. "I hope he is proud of me tonight," Jeff said of Witt after the Phoenix game. When a player goes for 30 points and 20 rebounds–the only Timberwolf to do so since KG, who last accomplished it against Sacramento in Game 7 of the playoffs–he has ultimate leverage to speak his mind. Jefferson chose to speak his on behalf of Wittman. That counts for something.

All that said, Sichting has always been an underrated basketball mind and tactician around these parts, and what he has done over the past three games should not go unappreciated. There are the big picture things, such as the implementation of this rotation. It was not very long ago at all that Gomes and McCants were considered vital to what the club was doing. Sichting has promoted Smith and Brewer at exactly the right times. As the interim coach himself has mentioned, Smith had a hard time getting into good game shape after twisting his ankle and then getting only sporadic minutes earlier this season. Sichting sounds as if he was among those goading Smith to work harder on his endurance and quickness–"he was usually one of the last guys to get back on defense" is how he described Smith’s first few weeks in his comments after the upset of the Suns last night. Brewer has been brought along slowly but seems like a guy who needs minutes to find his footing.

Then there are the little things that signify bigger things. Sichting was more explicit in his criticism of McCants after the Lakers loss, warning Shaddy that he needed to be more consistent. Then, to prove his point, he removed McCants from the starting lineup.

Then last night, McCants brushed Grant Hill on a breakaway layup that put the Suns ahead and was whistled for the foul at 2:43 to go in the 3rd period. Phoenix called a timeout before Hill’s FT and McCants started bitching at the ref, who barked right back at him and then walked away. As a frustrated McCants strode to the sidelines, Sichting caught his eye and laid into him with as much fervor as the ref just had, the gist of which I assume was, if you’re going to foul the guy, prevent the shot; if you’re not, get the hell away from him. It was a blistering, tough-love exchange. As circumstance would have it, McCants came out of the timeout and banged home a couple of three pointers that permanently swung the game in Minnesota’s favor. But when it came to crunchtime–the Wolves up 4 with 6:22 to play–Sichting lifted McCants and brought in Telfair to play alongside Jaric.

Before then, the Wolves had come out of halftime flat, watching the Suns turn a block and a steal into 5 quick points in the first 1:14 of the 3rd period, boosting Phoenix’s lead from 1 to 6. Pretty much everyone in the arena figured it was time to Minnesota to defer to the 16-4 juggernaut. But Sichting called a 20 second timeout and just delivered  a tongue-lashing that wasn’t loud so much as passionate and direct. Forty-seven seconds later, the score was tied.