Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
Game #35, Road Game #18: Minnesota 82, Houston 113
Game #36, Road Game #19: Minnesota 88, San Antonio 105
Season record: 5-31
1. The Emergence of Gomes
Let’s begin with the good news. In terms of being a complete, synergistic basketball player working to enable his team toward victory, Ryan Gomes has put together the best three-week stretch of anyone in a Timberwolves uniform thus far this 2007-08 season–better than any comparable peak period from Jefferson, McCants, Jaric, you name it. The numbers by themselves are mildly impressive: In the 12 games beginning with the Indiana win on December 21, the 6-7 forward has averaged 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 47% from the field and 86.7% from the line (39-45 FT, nearly 4 FTA per game). But three factors bolster the value and context of those figures.
First, consistency: If you throw out his horrible performance last Sunday against Dallas, Gomes has scored in double figures every game in the past eleven and snagged at least five rebounds in all but one of them (getting just two versus Seattle). Second, role-playing: Gomes is getting his points despite rarely having plays called for him as happens with Jefferson and McCants, and is snagging rebounds despite rare appearances at one of the two frontcourt positions that would ensure him more boards. Third, intangibles: This goes beyond role-playing and addresses basketball intelligence, the trendy way of saying Gomes knows how to play the game. When Gomes was mired in his mysterious doldrums in late November and early December, it was remarkable, and depressing, to see how much the Wolves’ basketball IQ was elevated when long past his prime vet Antoine Walker stepped out on the court. Aside from Walker, the guys with half a clue seemed to be the two Florida rooks, Brewer and Richard, and ‘Toine, despite his admirable spunk in response to the thudding career comedown of joining the Wolves, still was a guy ultimately most comfortable in going for his. Ditto Jefferson and McCants, without the court savvy. And while point guards Telfair and Jaric seem to know how to play, they each exhibit crippling flaws (for Telfair, shooting; for Jaric, lack of quickness in playing the point) that prevent them from executing.
That’s what has made Gomes so invaluable during this stretch. As mentioned in the last trey, he’s a glue guy, doing the things that don’t always make the stat sheet; not so much an initiator or a finisher in the half-court game as a linchpin between the two, not only fostering ball movement for its own sake, but making the smart, slightly creative, yet still high-percentage pass that exploits the defensive seam in a way that forces adjustments and opens larger seams for open jumpers and layups that generate assists on the next pass. If basketball were scored like hockey, with multiple assists, Gomes would rank just behind the two point guards for dishes. He’s already second on the team in rebounds per game, and fourth in points per game (and seemingly destined to pass Craig Smith in the next few games to be third behind Jefferson and McCants). He rates alongside Jaric, and just ahead of Brewer, as the most versatile defender on the team, committing fewer stupid fouls–a huge Wolves bugaboo–than anyone getting regular minutes. Now all he has to do is stop jacking up treys: After shooting 44% (15-34) from behind the arc in November (while clanking from two-point range; which I believe was the psychological catalyst for the overall deterioration in his game earlier this season), Gomes has been wretched from outside. Take away his 10-36 performance from treyville since 12/21 and he’s hitting 54% from the field (54-100 FG).
Unfortunately, there was a glaring gap between Gomes and everyone but plugging center Michael Doleac in terms of consistent aptitude on the Wolves roster during the two losses this weekend. He was the only Wolves player with a pulse in the first half of the blowout Friday night in Houston, tying for the team lead in rebounds with 4 and the sole Timberwolf converting more than half his shots–Gomes went 4-7 FG while the rest of the squad was 8-28 FG–as Houston rumbled to a 61-31 lead at the break and transformed the entire second half into garbage time.
Last night in a much better team effort against San Antonio, Gomes was again Minnesota’s clearcut MVP. Responding to the Spurs’ opening gameplan of denying McCants and Jefferson easy looks, he burried a couple of open jumpers, then, as the perimeter players began closing out on him, fed McCants for a pair of treys to knot the game at 24 in the first period. By halftime he had a game-high 6 rebounds, was second only to Jefferson in the game with 11 points (again on 4-7 FG), and committed no fouls nor turnovers in 19:14 of action. Yes, he was on the court for most of the second half as the Spurs outscored the Wolves by 18 points, and contributed to that deficit by not responding quickly enough to the Spurs inside-outside offensive ball movement (at 250 pounds, rapid defense from paint to perimeter in the half court is not Gomes’s forte). But anyone watching the game would acknowledge that the Spurs’ full court pressure on defense and ability to score (or provoke mismatches) inside were the two biggest factors in their win.
For the game, Gomes had 21 points (9-15 FG), second only to Jefferson’s 24 (on 10-18 FG) and a game-high 9 rebounds. As color commentator Jim Petersen noted two or three times, he continued "taking what the Spurs gave him" in the Wolves’ half-court offense and added a pair of opportunistic baskets in transition to close out both the second and third quarters on a strong note.
It is a long season, of course, and even a consistent three-week run by Gomes doesn’t guarantee that his role or his performance will continue unabated on a team that has a surfeit of unproven performers it must cull through before next year’s draft. Wolves’ stat guru Paul Swanson has informed me that Gomes is a *restricted* free agent at the end of this season, meaning the Wolves can match any offer, a vital distinction not indicated in the salary figures for either hoopshype.com or shamsports. Even if the Wolves feel compelled to take Michael Beasley as the top talent in the NBA draft–who, folks tell me, clones the best of Gomes and Jefferson–Gomes is exactly the sort of smart, consistent player that will always be a valuable commodity.
2. Jefferson: Spelled with an O, no D
On a ballclub without stars, it is difficult not to love Al Jefferson, who turned 23 last week, and is already giving the team 20 points and 11 or 12 rebounds per night by dint of mucking hard in the paint. Throw in his acceptance of a longterm contract that certainly could have been higher had he waited a year–and screwed the Wolves by signing elsewhere–and he’s a feel-good story and burgeoning cornerstone on a ballclub crying for a public identity in the post-KG era.
But here’s the rub: Nearly halfway through his fourth NBA season, the evidence continues to mount that Al Jefferson is a lazy defender. Perhaps what damns him most of all in this regard is the huge disparity between his doggedly refined low-post game on offense and his frequent willingness to get undressed on defense. When the Wolves set up in the half court, Jefferson’s precocious footwork, vast array of shots (jump hook, funky push jumper, up-and-under scoop, beneath-the-rim baseline banker, and well-calibrated wrist flick), cunning in avoiding predictible patterns on his moves and fierce determination to go up and finish in traffic already make him a top ten NBA scorer in the paint. To develop such multi-faceted skills takes dedication and intelligence. Neither of those virtues are apparent, to put it charitably, at the other end of the court.
Yes, Jefferson has been yo-yo’d between his natural power forward spot and center all season since the injury to Theo Rat
liff. And it seems that physically he is a ‘tweener on defense–lunched by leviathians such as Andrew Bynum yet zipped past or feinted to a faretheewell by small, savvy post performers like Houston’s Luis Scola on Friday. But how does that excuse all the times he shows too hard and can’t recover on the pick and roll (or, conversely, allows the p+r shooter an open look on the switch), or is caught napping on an interior pass for an easy layup, as happened twice with Francisco Oberto last night? He also doesn’t get back in transition very well, and his rotations are adequate at best–and inferior to Michael Doleac or the undersized Craig Smith.
Again, what is especially aggravating about these consistent lapses is that Jefferson continues to improve on offense–even on weak spots such as passing out of double teams, or raising the accuracy of his midrange jumper–while the fundamentals of his D remain fundamentally flawed. It bespeaks of ignorance to that part of his game, and diminishes his otherwise well-earned rep as a blue-collar stalwart. I understand the incentive for such imbalance in a league where Vince Carter is a fan favorite for dunking at one end while tanking at the other, and where no one wants to talk about how the universally lauded Yao Ming is totally ineffective on defense against a half-dozen NBA teams, and couldn’t guard relative lilliput Carlos Boozer when a playoff series was on the line. But despite Jefferson’s gaudy offensive numbers and my overall admiration for what he has accomplished, albeit only when his team has the rock, I don’t believe he deserves to be an All Star this season. Let’s not start handing out carrots to a young player with a marvelous upside who is currently staging perhaps the most impressive half-assed season in Timberwolves history.
3. Hosannahs and Brickbats
After alternately arguing for first Doleac and then Richard to be slotted in at center beside Jefferson, this weekend’s performances had me agreeing with Doleac’s starting assignments and Richard trading in his uni for street clothes on Saturday. As well as Richard recognizes rotations and hustles on defense, he simply abandons any pretense of offense–he’s even more unbalanced than Big Al. Twice on Friday his teammates,against all odds, bothered to pass him the ball, simply because he was so wide open. The first time Richard fumbled it; the second time he sent a carom so strong off the glass and rim it would have flown to half-court if not rebounded. Hard to say whether it is nerves, overdoing the self-effacing defensive-oriented role, or simple lack of talent at that end of the court, but Richard isn’t such a stud on defense that he can afford to let everyone take him for granted on offense.
Meanwhile, Doleac showcased that midrange jumper I kept harping on while arguing for some playing time for the Pale Rider earlier this season. He also knows how to commit the hard interior foul that prevents "and 1" from happening when someone loses their man in the paint. He play at both ends of the court was obviously bedeviling the Spurs on Saturday, as they ran multiple plays right at him after he’d picked up his 4th foul. Finally they were able to draw the fifth infraction with 5:50 left in the third period, sending Doleac to the bench for Smith. San Antonio promptly extended a 58-55 lead to 73-60–a 15-5 run–over the next 4:42 and that was essentially the ballgame. Word is that Theo Ratliff will be in the lineup soon. A Ratliff-Doleac platoon at the 5 gives the Wolves a fighting chance–and consistent minutes for Jefferson where he belongs–against squads with legitimate big men. Let that happen with Foye at the point and then we can finally see what we have on this roster.
Ah yes, the point guard spot. It is becoming more and more dramatically obvious that Telfair’s future will be determined by his ability to hit an open jump shot. Houston and San Antonio both gave Bassy a wide berth out on the perimeter–to the extent that it was almost 5-on-4 with the other players–and Telfair shot 1-10 FG in a combined 69:58 of play. That’s one shot every 7 minutes, or less than 7 per 48, a huge reluctance when the opponents are daring you to score–and yet, as Telfair’s wayward aim demonstrated, a wise reticence on his part. Meanwhile, brickmeister Bassy got the minutes because Marko Jaric may as well have been sidling in quicksand against the likes of Tony Parker, Rafter Alston, Jacques Vaughn and Aaron Brooks. Jaric himself shot 1-3 FG in a combined 39:06, fewer FG per minute than Bassy. Hmmm, maybe it is time to spot McCants in at the point every now and then, with Brewer, Gomes, Jefferson and Doleac. It would give the ego-laden tattoo aficionado incentive to distribute the rock and perhaps prompt him to be more turnover conscious. A gamble, yes, but the current alternatives aren’t exactly delivering dividends.
Even when he was going 7-9 FG in the meaningless second half against Houston, Brewer’s form is enough to give Fred Hoiberg an ulcer. Can he make NBA defenses respect him with that mid-air flailing? Well, Telfair certainly looks pretty going up, and the ball doesn’t go in. But the burden of proof to turn that mess into points is squarely on Brewer.