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Game #41, Home Game #19: Phoenix 107, Minnesota 117
Season record: 7-34
1. About That Small Lineup…
I can argue that three players are operating away from their natural position, that the defense is terrible, that opponents who play fundamentally sound "playoff style" basketball will destroy them, and that this is clearly not the best way to build for the future. But coach Randy Wittman and any other proponent of the small lineup the Wolves have been trotting out lately can offer up a pretty strong rebuttal: With Al Jeffeson at center flanked by Ryan Gomes and Rashad McCants as the forwards and the dual-point backcourt of Marko Jaric and Sebastian Telfair comprising the starting five, Minnesota’s record is 3-3. With every other lineup, the mark is 4-31.
During tonight’s whupping of Phoenix–the game wasn’t nearly as close as the 117-107 final margin–the Wolves certainly didn’t play "small." They completely dominated the battle of the boards, essentially splitting the rebounds of their own misses (grabbing 22 offensive boards versus the Suns’ 23 defensive rebounds) while owning their defensive glass by margin of 26-3. The backcourt fed the paint: Jaric and Telfair had a combined assist-to-turnover ratio of 18/2, while the frontcourt was merely 6/6, and the Wolves racked up 56 points in the paint (versus 44 for Phoenix) and 26 second chance points (to Phoenix’s 6). Oh, and for the second time in three meetings this season, "center" Al Jefferson absolutely destroyed "center" Amare Stoudemire when the Wolves had the ball.
More than any game thus far this season, Jefferson played offense with a killer instinct. The raw numbers are pretty revealing: 39 points, 14 free throws, 8 offensive rebounds. Stoudemire was helpless. Or, better put, the Suns starting giving him a lot of help, with as many as two or three others collapsing on Jefferson when he received the rock, and it really didn’t matter. If for some reason Jefferson didn’t succeed at first, he got the ball back and tried again. The dude finished with 29 FGA (making 15) and 14 FTA (making 9) and it didn’t feel like he was hogging the ball. That’s when you know you are having fun.
A brief pause here, while I drop a fly in the punchbowl. Jefferson’s utter lack of defense was nearly as monumental as his voracious offense. Stoudemire was 14 of 16 from the field and one of his two misses was a meaningless trey chucked with three seconds left in the game. He scored 33 points in the 29:40 that Jefferson was guarding him, which is why Jefferson finished the game with a team-worst minus -4. That doesn’t change the fact that Jefferson was the dominant force in a Wolves’ victory, because he most indisputably was. But it does neatly encapsulate the spectacularly half-assed season Jefferson is putting together. Okay, let’s move on.
In fact let’s conclude this first point by giving Wittman the chance to explain why he likes the small lineup, in response to a postgame question from the PiPress’s Rick Alonzo. "I just like the spacing with Ryan at the 4 and with having our two ball-handlers in the backcourt, not turning the ball over." Earlier, Witt had opined that flexing Gomes between the 3 and the 4 may have something to do with his current resurgence: "He can get open more easily on the perimeter with a 4 on him, and he can post up more easily on a 3."
2. Kudos Chorus Line
However Gomes is stepping up his game, it sure is fun to watch. Wittman mentioned two "huge" shots he made, a left-handed flip from 5 feet out cutting across the lane late in the third period, and a baseline jumper midway through the 4th quarter, both of them after Phoenix had cut the lead to 11 and were threatening to get it beneath that psychologically important double-digit deficit. For me it was the way Gomes mixed it up in the area from directly underneath the hoop out to the sidelines; keeping rebounds in play, chasing after loose balls, making the right interior pass, constantly moving without the ball, and laying a body on his man on defense. It seemed fairly obvious that Shawn Marion mailed this one in–he attempted just three shots and grabbed three rebounds in 32:33–but Gomes’s dogged demeanor successfully encouraged that malaise. Put it this way, when Marion’s matchup outscores him by 7, outrebounds him by 6, and gets just as many steals, blocks and assists, the Suns’ odds of winning drop dramatically.
Kudos also go out to Marko Jaric, the man I have nominated to head to the bench in favor of a center Chris Richard. Wittman has done exactly the opposite, sitting Marko a grand total of 3:48 *combined* the past two games. And in those two victories, Marko has compiled remarkably similar stats, registering 15 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists tonight after going for 16-8-10 versus Golden State on Monday. For a man who hates to come out and pouts when he isn’t playing and/or the team is losing, Marko needs to cherish the current harmonic convergence of his Iron Man status (others include superrapper Ghostface Killah and comic book superhero Tony Starks, neither of whom have supermodel Adriana Lima at his elbow) on a team with a winning streak, however modest. Life is good, even when the thermometer says -16.
Kudos also to the trio coming off the Wolves’ bench, and to Wittman for keeping the rotation down to 8. How many times have we seen the Wolves and their opponent feel each other out, play on relatively even terms, and then have the opponent explode for a 10 or 12 point splurge in the second quarter to open up a formidable gap that essentially dictates the course of the game from there on out? Wasn’t that pretty much what happened when Minnesota travelled to Phoenix less than a week ago? Well tonight it went the other way, the way of the Wolves, and the splurge-makers were the subs, Corey Brewer, Antoine Walker, and Craig Smith.
I must confess that I still cringe when Brewer goes up for a jumper. But unlike, say, Bassy Telfair, who seems to weigh the validity of his missive on the shot-selection chart even as he is leaving his feet, Brewer continues to play as if he knows damn well what is or isn’t a good shot, and if it’s a good shot in the flow of the game, then he’s going to take it. And guess what? Tonight’s 6-11 FG makes him 38-82 over the last 16 games (a pretty solid sample size), which is 46.3%, or better than the NBA average of 45.3%. Yeah, the fact that he hasn’t hit a trey since Dec. 11 makes that eFG% pretty paltry, but paltry is two or three levels better than the clanging albatross stage when he couldn’t make 30% of his shots for nearly three weeks.
Just as he put invisible training wheels on Gerald Green’s game when the two shared the court a few weeks back, Antoine Walker is mentoring Brewer in ways large and small lately. ‘Toine knows, even if Brewer doesn’t, that the thin rook’s biggest flaw is shooting, and so tonight he laid at least three or four shots for Corey on a platter, mostly in transition, in the form of dishes for bunny jumpers, or on a drive-and-kick to the corner, and once on a very sweet feed that Brewer, the throttle all the way down, couldn’t help but to rise up and slam through the hoop. Then ‘Toine would twinkle-toes his way back upcourt, secure in the knowledge that the experiences he was generously doling out were accumulating karma points that, in all fairness, should be paid out in the form of a trade to a contender before next month’s deadline expires. The man has done his penance for gluttony, or whatever sins troubled the fevered brow of Pat Riley down in Miami, who, speaking of karma, is currently riding a 14-game losing streak. Anyway, as much as he likes to feign delight in rearing players up here on the frozen tundra, young’uns who were four
th-graders when he first broke into the league, you know ‘Toine itches for a meaningful hardwood milieu come May and June, perhaps for a playoff team in need of postseason experience who plays in a warm clime, such as Orlando. No doubt he has been a boom-or-bust commodity thus far this season, but when he’s on he can be a maestro, orchestrating the development of potential into performance–Brewer was plus +13 in the 21:40 he played alongside ‘Toine tonight and minus -2 in the 8:15 he played without him. And even when he’s off Walker remains a highly respected presence in the locker room and a good-vibes pom-pom guy on the bench.
3. Hype On the Horizon
The next game is the Celtics, in Boston. We have a tendency to focus on Garnett, obviously, but in terms of the Timberwolves, the team’s two best players, Jefferson and Gomes, are going back to the only NBA home they ever knew before this season, and to a rabid fan base that will dole out the love and hate with vigor. The won-lost records offer a strong rebuke to the current worth of Jeff and Gomes, one I imagine they will be very determined to counter. Assuming Witt maintains his version of smallball, that puts Jefferson on Kendrick Perkins, an opponent he surely has faced, and bested, many times in practice; and Gomes on KG, who is larger and faster, etc, etc. How do you match up Marko and McCants on Pierce and Ray Allen? It doesn’t seem like it will be pretty, but then again the C’s have hit a bit of a trough–they lost to Toronto at home tonight–and the Wolves, well, these Wolves are playing better than ever before. Or, as Wittman says, We’ve beaten the best team in the West (at least record-wise) twice now, let’s see if we can beat the best team in the East.