The Three Pointer: Matchup Problems

Game #19, Road Game #9: Minnesota 88, Washington 101

Season record: 3-16

1. Live By the Boards, Die By the Boards

We’re not in Atlanta or Phoenix anymore, Dorothy. After utterly dominating the rebounding against two teams that don’t play anyone over 6 feet, 10 inches tall, the Timberwolves were mauled tonight, 57-35, by the bigger, stronger, Wizards frontcourt. Washington essentially did what Minnesota executed on its last two foes, getting 20 of the 45 boards on their offensive glass and 37 of 47 at the defensive end.

The problem is pretty simple. Al Jefferson went off for 32 points and 20 rebounds Saturday against Phoenix. Tonight, Craig Smith had a career high 36 points. But both of these players are indisputably power forwards. Neither is remotely quick enough to play the 3, and neither is really tall and/or strong enough to cope with legitimate NBA centers. Fortunately there aren’t that many such centers around, but the Wizards have Brendan Haywood, and that’s plenty enough to stymie Jefferson.

The last time the Wolves played Washington on November 16, Theo Ratliff suffered that fateful and mysterious knee injury that may represent his last appearance in a Wolves uniform. At any rate, Jefferson shot 3-6 FG when Ratliff was beside him at center, and 2-10 FG when he himself was forced to play the pivot, usually against the seven-foot, 263-pound Haywood. Tonight, Jefferson shot 5-14 FG and grabbed 7 rebounds. Haywood was 5-9 with 14 rebounds. In the two Washington games, Jefferson has shot a combined 10-30 FG (awful for such a paint-oriented player), has gone 9-10 FT, but has 17 rebounds (3 on the offensive end), zero assists, six turnover and is a combined minus -41 in a combined 75:53 minutes. Haywood is 9-16 FG, just 1-5 FT, but has 25 rebounds, a whopping 12 of them on the offensive end, 2 assists, four turnovers and is a combined plus +28 in a combined 61:02 minutes. The statistics that really count here are Jefferson’s shooting percentage and Haywood’s offensive rebounds. As was proven with Lakers’ Andrew Bynum earlier in the season, Jefferson has a lot of problems jousting with legit centers at both ends of the court. Look at it this way: Tonight the Wolves were minus -23 in the 39:25 Jefferson played, which means they were plus +9 in the 8:35 he was on the bench.

But to be fair to "Big Al," it wasn’t just Haywood vs. Jefferson. In a television interview after the game, Wizards guard Antonio Daniels revealed that they watched plenty of tape of Jefferson’s monster game against Phoenix on Saturday, and Washington set its gameplan on ensuring Jefferson wouldn’t beat them–a significant factor in Smith’s breakout performance.

In fact, the subplots on all three front court matchups tonight were fascinating. Could Jefferson handle a big center like Haywood? (No.) Could Craig Smith guard a perimeter-shooting power forward like Antawn Jamison? Well, given that Jamison needed 22 shots to register 22 points (7-22 FG, 2-6 3ptFG, 6-7 FT), and that Smith went off for 36 in just as many FGA, the answer is complicated, and necessarily incomplete. Jamison outrebounded Smith 13-9, and matched him on Smith forte of offensive rebounding (they both grabbed 4), plus chipped in 5 assists to Smith’s donut.

The other frontcourt matchup was a reprise of Corey Brewer vs. Caron Butler. After the first Minnesota-Washington game, I cited Butler’s manhandling of Brewer as evidence that the rook simply couldn’t guard the bigger, stronger small forwards in the league. But tonight Brewer showed continued growth. Butler got 20 points (10-20 FG), 10 reboundsx and 4 assists, but he’s been doing that against everybody, especially since Gilbert Arenas went down in mid November. Brewer was much more judicious with his shot selection, going 3-5 FG while registering 9 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists. It could have been worse.

2. Terrific Telfair and Miserable Marko

Jefferson wasn’t the only goat of this game. After two or three solid weeks of inspired play, Marko Jaric has a very tough night. There were two crucial tipping points in the game, and Jaric helped swing it toward the Wizards on both occasions. Just 1:21 into the second quarter, Wittman subbed in Jaric for Sebastian Telfair, who’d had a brilliant first quarter with 11 points and 5 assists. The score was tied at 26 with Jaric came back in (he’d sat with 3:38 to play in the first) and was 29-28 Washington when the Wizards brought Deshawn Stevenson in for Antonio Daniels, pretty much ensuring that Jaric instead of Ryan Gomes or Rashad McCants would be on backup point guard Roger Mason much of the time. Mason, an undistinguished 6-5 combo guard, proceeded to score 8 points in less than 2 minutes, boosting Washington’s lead to 6. It was 8 when Wittman finally brought Telfair back in alongside Jaric with 3:40 to play in the half, and 10 at the break.

Then, in the 4th quarter, Minnesota had cut an 18 point deficit down to 79-85 with a little more than 8 minutes to play. Once again Jaric was operating in the backcourt without Telfair. This time, Marko bricked two jumpers while the Wizards converted at the other end, kicking the lead back to double digits. One problem was that, in trying to get Jefferson some help in the paint, Wittman was playing the offensively challenged Chris Richard. But the other problem was that Marko could neither get the ball to anybody nor get off a good shot.

Now there are occasions when plus/minus numbers can be misleading, as in merely circumstantial evidence that fingers the wrong culprit or elevates a benign bystander. But check this: In 25:41 tonight, Jaric was a minus -31. In 38:01, Telfair was a minus -1. In the 16:35 they shared the backcourt, the Wolves were minus -18. That means Telfair was plus +17 in the 21:26 he played without Jaric and Marko was minus -13 in the 8:59 he played without Telfair.

For the game, Telfair dropped a dollar’s worth of dimes versus only one turnover. He continues to work well with Brewer, assisting on two of the rook’s three baskets, and fed Smith three times for hoops in the game’s first eight minutes. Whereas Jaric is more inclined to pick up assists either by dumping it into the low post to Jefferson (with whom he has good rapport) or, increasingly, off dribble penetration, Telfair seems more adept as rifling passes inside or operating the quick, bounce-pass pick and roll, which is where he and Smith were particularly effective tonight. Bassy also shot 5-12 FG, further solidifying that plus 40% accuracy. The news today of more rehab time for Randy Foye gives Telfair another toehold on that mountain he is climbing to become a reliable backcourt fixture in the Wolves’ rotations. Tonight was another significant step up in that process.

3. Quick Hosannahs and Brickbats

Yes, the Wizards were focusing on Jefferson, but 36 points from anybody at anytime is worth a closer look, eh? Vexing as it is to have Smith duplicate Jefferson’s power forward slot, let’s dwell instead on what fabulous hands the guy has for such a beefy build. Most of the time he is snagging balls on the move, be it the high pick and roll with Bassy or flashing in from the weak side, or corralling offensive rebounds with people pounding on his back. How often does the Rhino drop a pass? I didn’t see it happen tonight, and there were at least a half-dozen tough chances he handled. Second, after shooting just 62.4% from the free throw line last year, and 17-30 FT to begin this season, he is 17-19 FT thus far in December, indicating that either he is in a marvelous groove or has been diligently practicing–probably both. Finally, although the Jamisons and other perimeter guys still will give him trouble, Smith does seem to cover more range this season, without losing the ability to recognize and execute the right rotations down in the paint. In my NBA season preview this season, I said that Craig Smith’s potential was overrated. I was wrong.

Rashad McCants had an interesting, mostly positive, night. Joining
Antoine Walker as the first guys off the bench with 3:38 to play in the first, Shaddy went nearly 12 minutes (11:58) without an official shot, preferring to emphasize ball movement and moving with or without the ball, drawing fouls and sinking 3 of 4 FTs on his only two attempts. But with 5:24 to play in the 3rd and the Wolves down 16, his resolve weakened, and he jacked up 4 attempts in three minutes, making a trey and then quickly taking a heat check by driving in traffic for a miss, enabling a fast break bucket the other way, following that up with a missed trey and commiting a stupid foul that yielded another pair of points. After that spasm, he settled down, and doled out four assists in the next nine minutes, finishing with 6 dimes and zero turnovers along with 5 rebounds, 8 points and a team high plus +4 in 32:25.

At the same time, color commentator Jim Petersen did a great job of telestrating a play where Shaddy’s lackluster perimeter D plus a belated gamble resulted in a rotation scramble and a Wizards slam dunk. It was a superb, teachable moment by J Pete that just happened to come at McCants’s expense. Then, in the postgame report, the FoxSports desk, particularly analyst Mike McCollow, openly wondered whether Shaddy’s knee was restricting his movement and hurting his ability to get down in his defensive stance and to get back in transition. Frankly, I didn’t notice these things, but do think McCants has done too much reaching on defense at times this year. Then again, he did less of it last season–his best defensive year thus far–and that was when his knee was most problematical.

Antoine Walker didn’t have it; tried to do too much too soon after returning from ankle problems and hurt the time. Petersen mentioned that the ankle was still bothering him, which prompts the question of why the hell was he playing then–the Wolves have done pretty well with him out of the rotation lately. And the doldrums continue for Ryan Gomes, who clearly was trying to go strong to the hoop with the ball this game instead of settling for jumpers, but his rhythm is still way off and his defense likewise isn’t what it was in the preseason or with the Celts a year ago.

Finally, Randy Wittman also didn’t distinguish himself in his first game back from back surgery. I understand the dilemma Witt was facing: Jefferson and Jaric were being killed by matchups and both have been warriors both most of the season and in the past few games. Meanwhile, Craig Smith and Sebastian Telfair deserved mucho time in the power forward and point guard spots. In 20/20 hindsight, Witt should have bit the bullet and played a legit center next to Smith more often, instead of giving Jeff an ineffective 39:25. And if having Richard or Doleac in the game more often meant more focus on Smith, then swap in Jefferson with a big and see what happens.

More intangibly and yet more obviously, the Wolves didn’t seem like they were laying it out full bore for Wittman the way they had for Sichting the past two games. Most likely it was the disadvantageous matchups at work. But Wittman was right to dwell on the lack of effort in his postgame analysis. He just has to hope his presence isn’t a factor somehow in the lethargy.