Game #23, Road Game #12: Minnesota 87, Miami 91
Season record: 3-20
1. Sabotaged At the Two Guard
The Miami Heat look terrible. Shaq is shockingly old, his hands lacking grip, his knees unable to help him stop on a dime–he committed two or three fouls (and fouled out) tonight simply bowling people over with uncontrolled momentum–not from passion by lack of muscular restraint against his enormous body mass. Dwyane Wade is obviously not close to 100%–he walks with a hitch and looks five years removed from NBA Finals MVP instead of 18 months. He clanged jumper after jumper. The Heat’s best player on the floor tonight was glue guy Udonis Haslem. And Wolves fans need not regret waving goodbye to Ricky Davis and Mark Blount.
And yet Minnesota still spit the bit on this eminently winnable game. And this time around, it was the dysfunctional two-guards, Marko Jaric and Rashad McCants, who let them down the most. What happened to Jaric? Was it just a week or 10 days ago that he was playing the best ball of his NBA career, penetrating for layups, dishing off that penetration, and hitting clutch hoops in addition to his usual kamikaze defense? Well, he’s back in the tank. For the second straight game he was held without a field goal, had two of his three FGA blocked, and committed four turnovers, at least three of them simply stupid passes. Wittman yanked him after one such careless perimeter giveaway early in the third, and only inserted him after Rashad McCants fouled out late in the fourth. In no stint was he effective. The mystery continues.
On a team that has trouble getting out of the 80s in terms of scoring, the ability of McCants to hit jumpers from the outside is desperately needed. Tonight he strode on to the court late in the first quarter and starting raining sweet j’s, ringing up 8 points that included a pair of treys in just 2:47. At the half he had 13 (5-7 FG), neatly counterbalancing Al Jefferson’s 13 in the paint and the Wolves owned a six point lead at the break.
Any Wolves fan that wasn’t cursing at McCants in the third quarter must have been too busy switching over the Vikings game. Time after time–five times, actually, four of them from long range–the ball was either swung or otherwise found its way to Shaddy stepping up in perfect rhythm for an uncontested jumper. And every single time, the shot didn’t go. The stats will show that the Wolves lost just two points of their lead to the Heat in that 12-minute span, and headed into the 4th still up 64-60. But anyone watching know that the Heat, 2-8 at home and a patently past-their-prime patsy just waiting to be put out of their misery, had actually gained a little ground while consistently trying to give the game away. If McCants just hits two or three of those wide open looks. the lead is double-digits heading into the final frame and Minnesota wins that game.
When it is all said and done, McCants is on the team because of his ability to stick a jumper from the perimeter and display enough penetrating skills to burn defenders who attempt to jam up that jumper. His line tonight, 19 points on 7-18 FG, doesn’t look as bad as the zero assists and four turnovers, but the simple truth is that Minnesota didn’t need Shaddy to move the ball tonight; the way the game played out, what they craved was for McCants to do what he is supposed to do–burn opponents who don’t cover him on the perimeter, and make them pay at the free throw line if they do get a body out there. Wade sank one fewer FG on four more attempts, but Wade also got to the line a whopping 20 times, including 14 FTA in the second half. McCants was 1-2 FT; Wade was 18-20. That’s how Wade got 30 and won the game while Shaddy got 19 and lost it. And no, I don’t expect McCants to be the second coming of Wade. But as the Wolves’ designated gun-slinger, it sure would be nice to watch him put a team away. It’s happened exactly once, versus Sacramento when he went off for 33. If he’s going to clang 10 of his last 14 attempts, he needs to draw more than one foul in the act of shooting for the entire game.
By the way, Corey Brewer likewise rolled a goose-egg into the points-scored column, missing all four of his shots to run his current bricklaying to 2-17 over the past two games. Together, Jaric and Brewer produced more than 45 minutes of scoreless play tonight. Brewer did do a nice job hounding Wade however, and Ryan Gomes continued his modest but steady resurgence back from the doldrums of November and early December. Given that the Heat frequently played the two swingmen, Davis and Wade, together, it would have been a good time for Wittman to bump Brewer back to the two-guard slot and play him beside Gomes for a change.
2. Dinosaurs Roam The Hardwood Again
Michael Doleac got the start tonight, presumably because he spent the past year or two guarding Shaq in practice and also happens to be the tallest, heaviest MF Minnesota could throw at the Diesel. Handed the opportunity to once again play against his peers at power forward, Al Jefferson predictibly went off 13 points (6-9 FG) and 7 rebounds in the first half, then added 9 points and 13 rebounds even when Pat Riley threw Shaq on Jeff and had Haslem guard Doleac in the third period. I realize some folks think I rely on the plus/minus figure too much, and I really do understand its deficiencies. But when it keeps reinforcing a point, it behooves us to pay attention–especially when it provides statistical confirmation for what we witness with our own eyes. And our eyes tell us that Jefferson thrives at the 4 and struggles at center. Tonight, Big Al was plus +2 in the 26:42 he played alongside either Doleac or Chris Richard, and minus -5 in the 10:37 he played beside Chris Smith.
3. Silver Lining
If you’re reading thus far about a 3-20 squad, you probably deserve a little hope and positive thinking. Well, if the point of this season is to sift the talent and see who is skilled and tenacious enough not to fall through the cracks, there are a couple of players who deserve attention. The first is Jefferson, who went off for 22 and 20 and even chipped in a couple of assists, dominating Haslem and contributing to Shaq fouling out.
The second is Sebastian Telfair, who has gone from suspiciously not sucking to warily pleasant surprise to maybe he’s not bad to a little, dare we say it, reliable play at the point guard position. I’m really beginning to enjoy Telfair’s shot selection and his mixture of jumpers and layups; his increasingly competent doubling-down on big men and his signature strip-down moves on players driving to the hoop. Bassy is playing all 94 feet and despite getting hammered–what should have been a flagrant foul on a straight push to the chest from Shaq on one drive, and crashing into the endline photographers while creating a turnover on the Heat–keeps the motor running. Tonight he had 17 points, 6 assists and just two turnovers in more than 37 minutes. In a perfect world, Telfair would continue to thrive, and Foye would come off the bench a la Manu Ginobili. The Timberwolves’ world is nearly the opposite of perfect, but this Telfair character is doing his part to prolong the fantasy.