The Three Pointer: Cruise Control

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Game #46, Home Game #22: LA Clippers 83, Minnesota 104

Season record: 10-36

1. Two Matchup Switches

Sebastian Telfair was in the torture chamber that is Sam Cassell’s offensive bag of tricks. The first two times Cassell called his own number in Friday night’s game, the 6-3 motormouth was backing the 6-foot Bassy down in the low block, then missing the makeable turnaround J’s. After that, he stopped missing, hitting four of his next five shots in the period, plus three FTs that saddled Telfair with two fouls. When Randy Foye subbed in for Telfair, Cassell broke Foye’s ankles with a court-length dribble-layup–consider how back you have to be on defense for ancient Sam to do that to you–then fed Cuttino Mobley for a jumper.

It was the Clips’ only assist in the period. They were too busy creating their own shots off dribble penetration, as evidenced by their 55% accuracy (11-20 FG) for the period. When an opponent shoots 55% with one assist, they are either pounding one huge matchup or the entire team is breaking down. For Minnesota, it was a little of both: Cassell alone had 13 points, 5 boards and that dime, but the other Clips weren’t too shabby at 6-12 FG as the Wolves were down seven at the period buzzer. Coach Randy Wittman glowered, spun, stamped his foot and hollared at his troops heading to the bench during a timeout.

But it didn’t get any better in the first half of the second quarter. The Clips were 5-11 FG and coaxed 8 free throws from the too-late Minnesota D, while the Wolves themselves drew nada from the charity stripe. For a five-minute stretch, Minnesota’s offense boiled down to: get the ball to McCants and get the hell out of the way. At least that’s the way McCants saw it. Consigned to the bench apparently due to remnants of a flu that caused him to miss the previous game, he then saw Foye become the Wolves’ first sub. You think he was a little perturbed, perhaps ready to show the world a thing or two? Here is the total sum of the Wolves’ shot selection over a period of 4:17 of the second period:

11:24: McCants, layup shot missed

11:22: McCants, tip shot made

10:46: McCants, jump shot made

10:16: McCants, driving reverse layup shot made

9:37: McCants, layup shot missed

8:31: McCants, driving layup shot made

7:54: McCants, fadeaway jumper missed

7:07: McCants, 3pt shot missed

Twelve seconds later, McCants picked up his third foul of the period and headed for the bench. Those in the pro-Shaddy camp will approvingly note that he made four of those eight shots, which was a damn sight better than the 34.6% Minnesota shot in the first period. Another positive is that five of those eight shots were in the paint–four layup attempts and a tip-in. And if you were there, it was a pretty conclusive demonstration that Rashad McCants can get his own shot pretty much whenever he wants against a decent NBA defense not specifically geared to stop him. But those same people saw that McCants had eyes for nothing but the hoop–his teammates might as well have been trading high-fives with Mad Dog. The three fouls likewise were no coincidence. When Shaddy is trying to rule on the offensive end, he has a tendency to overhype his defense–faux effort, in that he’s not thinking ahead anticipating his man’s move and he’s not moving his feet, at least not as pretty as those traipses through opponents when he’s the one with the ball. Bottom line, the Wolves were down 7 when he began his shooting spree, and down 12 when he grabbed some pine.

It got as bad as 15, at 30-45 with 5:59 left to the play in the second period, when Telfair likewise picked up his third foul, joustling Cassell, naturally, and joined McCants on the bench. Then, because of two huge matchup switches, the game flipped, flipped hard, and never re-reversed itself.

The first thing that happened was that Marko Jaric was sent back into the game to replace Telfair–and guard Cassell. What Sammy soon discovered was that Jaric was too large to fit inside the torture chamber. After getting 15 points with one assists and zero turnovers in 12:56 before Jaric came in for Telfair, Cassell registered just two more points, two assists and four turnovers in 14:50 after that.

The second thing was that unheralded Josh Powell picked up his third foul trying to stop an Al Jefferson layup just 18 seconds after Marko switched in for Bassy. It was just the second bucket of the game for Jefferson, and afterward both Wittman and Jefferson said that was Jefferson’s fault, that he wasn’t being aggressive enough trying to get to the hole. I say they are being unfair to Powell, an undrafted kid in his second year out of North Carolina State who is already on his fourth NBA team and was busting his hump trying to deny Jefferson first the ball and then position. So with Powell’s third, in comes Aaron Williams, who is 6-9 like Powell but 15 pounds lighter at 225. With Elton Brand out all season with a shoulder, Chris Kamen sidelined with the flu (ditto free throw machine Corey Maggette), and Powell on the bench in foul trouble, Aaron Williams was choice #4 to match up with Jefferson. He should have been #5. Jefferson scored 9 points over the next 2:20 and the Wolves were down only 4, 56-52, at the break.

"Run roughshod" is a good cliche for the second half. The Clips had nothing, shooting 10-34 FG and getting only 27 points in the entire 24 minutes. For the second half of the final quarter, they had a backcourt of 5-10 Brevin Knight and 6-0 Dan Dickau. Wittman called it the best 24 minutes of perimeter D he’s seen this season, but I think all but the final minute–the collapse, in other words–against the Celts in the second half was better, because the opposition was a JV team. I mean, Al Thornton, that stupidly trendy pick for ROY before the season started, was 1-15 FG. Meanwhile, Craig Smith himself had 19 points in the second half, on 8-10 FG.

2. The Backcourt Jumble

So what did Jaric’s stellar stopper performance on Cassell–he was plus +24, with 8 assists and but a single turnover–do to enhance his place in the crowded backcourt picture? And what about Shaddy, the Mad Bombadier? Well, the tea leaves on the second question are easier to answer than the first. After the game, I asked Wittman if McCants might have freer rein to let fly when he’s a sub coming off the bench versus when he is a starter. "Yeah," the coach acknowledged, looking down at a stat line that had McCants attempting a dozen shots in 13:36. Then he added, well, how often was he in there with Al, or Gomes?

And right there you realize that if you’ve got a low block stud in the game alongside a sage, keep-the-ball moving teammate in the frontcourt, *and* a shoot-first point guard just returning from injury but expected to be a pillar for your future, the best place for a protean swingman who can almost always get his own shot might be coming off the bench while those previous three take a breather. Translation: Jefferson and Gomes are two-thirds of any frontcourt allignment from here on out. Sooner, rather than later, Foye will be the point guard. With those three in the game, what you need most is passing, defense, and, especially if it is Witt’s smallball outfit, a little more length. That’s Marko.

How well McCants takes to this is fairly predictable–not well. His demeanor and behavior have indicated thus far this season that starting matters to him. Will having the opportunity to be the gunner without a conscience compensate at all for this perceived slight?

When I naturally followed up Witt’s inference by saying, so the idea will be to bring McCants off the bench for instant offense, the coach gave a "we’ll see" reply. But it is hard not to see that’s wha
t he had in mind. When McCants was jacking up 8 shots in 4 minutes, the man giving him the ball and waving goodbye to the rest of the play was Foye. *That’s* not going to happen too many games in a row. Lest we all had forgotten, Foye has a pretty large ego too. In his postgame comments Friday, he reminded folks that the team is 2-1 since his return, that he is indeed a point guard much more than a two-guard–"it’s the way I play, the way I do things"–and that "You’ll know when I’m back: I’ll have a big game and play more than 24 minutes." Friday’s tote: 2-5 FG, 2 assists, one turnover with a pair of steals. He had more shots and half as many assists as Telfair; only half as many shots yet just one-quarter the assists of Jaric. Stay tuned.

3. Jefferson to Brewer…

At least three times on Friday, Al Jefferson set Corey Brewer up for a perfect layup. At least two other times, Jefferson’s pass provided Brewer with a wide open jumper. Brewer finished 2-9 FG, and Jefferson was credited with but two dimes, one of them to Brewer. In other words, Brewer hurried the bunnies Jefferson was pulling out of his hat for him, going too strong on a pair of layup attempts and not assembling the sort of silky flow on practically any of his jumpers that elicit confidence that the ball is going to go in. For the season, Brewer now has 95 makes in 271 attempts, or 35%. The hard part is that he’s missing good shots.

Now let’s look at the good news in this exchange. Jefferson’s growth at finding the open man when teams collapse on him is becoming manifest. Seriously, Jefferson deserved at least five assists, in just 29:58 on Friday (he didn’t play the entire fourth quarter of the blowout). On Monday, the team that gave the Wolves their worst whupping of the season–the Houston Rockets–come to Target Center. Don’t be surprised if Michael Doleac gets a few Jefferson feeds for midrange jumpers when Houston comes with the double-team. And don’t be surprised if Corey Brewer is on the bench.