Abbreviated Three-Pointer: Chicago Split and the Return of Foye

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game #44, Road Game #24: Minnesota 85, Chicago 96

Game #45, Home Game #21: Chicago 67, Minnesota 83

Season record: 9-36

1. Legitimately Respectable

Flirting with the flu, I decided to avoid contaminating Target Center last night and catch my second straight Bulls-Wolves tilt on the tube. And as both teams renewed their clankfest of the previous evening, it struck me how precipitously fortunes can flip in the NBA. A year ago before the playoffs, I had the Bulls as the likely choice to reach the Finals. This preseason, I figured them for a #2 seed. After watching 96 minutes of head-to-head competition, I like the Wolves’ situation better for both the near and long term future. Chicago is paying Ben Wallace twice as much as the Wolves are paying Al Jefferson. Both Luol Deng and Ben Gordon can be unrestricted free agents after next season. Unless Deng and/or Gordon can be coaxed to stay, Kirk Hinrich and Andres Nocioni will be the backbone of this team, with Thabo Sefolosha and Yoakim Noah–both very good, underrated glue guys–and Wallace filling out the lineup.

In Minnesota, Jefferson keeps getting better. The Strib calling him the "New KG" on its front page the other day simply made that declining newspaper look all the more clueless, and the gabfest on FoxSports last night universally lauding the KG-Jefferson deal continues the frantic spin cycle before Garnett comes to town a week from tomorrow. Perhaps if the "Old KG" was still around, FoxSports wouldn’t have to show Sweetwater Jones 73 times per telecast or have Jim Petersen and Mike McCollow roll up their shirtsleeves and literally go through the motions on its postgame in lieu of paid advertisements.

But I digress, and it is not fair to Jefferson, who needs no false comparisons to announce his value. One of the few things he and Garnett have in common is an uncommonly dogged work ethic, and watching the budding low-post stud parse and fathom the game but aging Wallace on the tail end of the back-to-back should warm the hearts of the Wolves’ faithful. After going 4-5 FG in the first quarter Tuesday night and 6-9 FG for the half, Jefferson was taken out of his rhythm by Wallace in the third quarter, shooting 1-5 FG. The Bulls extended a one-point lead with 10:16 to go in the third up to 11 points with 7 seconds to play in the period and that was essentially the ballgame.

Last night, Jefferson wore Wallace out. Once again, the two big men played only when the other was on the court. After shooting 3-10 FG in the first half, Jefferson went 9-14 FG in the second. Through the first six quarters of their matchup, Jefferson was minus -34, Wallace plus +34. In the last two quarters, Big Al was plus +13 and Wallace was minus -12 before interim Bulls coach Jim Boylan finally threw in the towel and sat him with 2:32 left to play. Sometimes the most basic numbers tell the story most eloquently. This was one of those gritty, ugly 83-67 ballgames. And the man Ben Wallace was guarding went off for 26 points and 20 rebounds.

Without belaboring the point, as Jefferson raised his offense from a B+ to an A over the past week or two, his defense has been elevated from a D to a C. Sure, some of this is two games against Ben Wallace, who will make any defender well with his nonexistent O. But after showing little genuine interest in denying points to the other team, Jefferson does seem to be more engaged in deterring penetration, rotating over to the opposite block and, albeit less successfully, showing on the pick and roll. It’s coming.

Not coincidentally, the Wolves are slowly but surely turning into a respectable basketball team–not good, or perhaps even mediocre, but a threat to snatch wins when given the opportunity. Last night provided the perfect example of Kevin McHale’s dictum that you can win a dozen or more games simply by making a consistent effort against teams that don’t bother to show up.

2. Foye’s First Two

We’ll get more into #4 when I’m feeling better and there is a larger sample size, but what most struck me about Foye’s first two games is that his offense was way ahead of his defense and that he most definitely fits the mold of a shoot-first point guard. That’s an indirect compliment to Bassy Telfair, who has accustomed us to a point guard who prioritizes ball distribution and proactive passing (as opposed to the more passive perimeter tossover or the dump into the post). Foye had 10 shots and zero assists in 21:16 last night after going 4-8 FG with 2 dimes in 17:43 Tuesday. That’s 18 shots and two assists in 38:59, and aside from a Gerald Green or Shaddy-like flurry of 3-3 FG to open Tuesday’s second quarter, he was 4-15 from the field. If this keeps up, Foye will be robbing time from Shaddy, GG, and Jaric more than from Telfair. Here’s hoping as Foye gets settled in that there will be less spangles and more glue to his all around game.

3. Small vs. Large Update

Ryan Gomes was too classy to say he was playing out of position on Tuesday night, blaming his own lack of aggressiveness for his scoreless evening, But did we really need to watch Jefferson-Gomes-McCants play head-up against Wallace-Noah-Nocioni for very long before deciding it wasn’t going to be pretty? How often do the Wolves get outrebounded 4 to 3 (48-36)? When last night’s starting lineup had Brewer in for Shaddy, I assumed it was a height thang rather than a virus on McCants.

Anyway, I thought two stints really changed the nature of last night’s game. The first was when coach Randy Wittman finally went big, putting Michael Doleac and Antoine Walker in so that Gomes was kicked down to small forward at the beginning of the second period. The Wolves were plus +8 over the next 5:40. The second tone-changer was when Boylan subbed in guard Chris Duhon for the seven-footer Noah with 5:38 to go in the third. The Bulls were minus -11 for the rest of the period. That’s a total 19-point swing in a combined 11:18, and it happened when the Wolves went big and then when the Bulls went small.