The Three Pointer: Ongoing Progress

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game # 47, Home Game #23: Houston 92, Minnesota 86

Season record: 10-37

1. Telfair and Jaric Stake Their Claims

It may be a long time before Randy Foye earns the starting point guard position. The blueprint has it that Foye will be at the point just as soon as he works himself into game shape from that truculent knee injury that robbed him of more than half a season. For two games in a row he has been the first player off the bench and the plan is obviously to install him as the floor general for this ballclub as soon as possible.

But that doesn’t mean he will *earn* the job, especially given the disparity between Foye’s stumblebum narcissism and the perspicacity with which the current PG incumbent, Bassy Telfair, performed tonight in a close loss to Houston that was well-played by both teams. It was perhaps Telfair’s best game of the season, right up there with the Indiana blowout and the near upset of the Celtics. He consistently dribble-penetrated through the tall trees of China (Yao Ming) and Spain (Luis Scola) and at least four of his dozen dimes were highlight-reel quality, the kind that lift a team’s offensive confidence the way a block or a steal lifts a defense.

My personal favorite was the last of those 12 assists, occurring with 3:31 to play and the Wolves down 4, 78-82. Starting out at the left key, Telfair took a near baseline angle on his drive to the hoop, and Houston’s entire defense, accustomed to his artistry by now, coalesced around both the dribbler and the two big men in or near the paint. And so Bassy just kept going, beneath the hoop and apparently headed toward the corner, the place where he’d fed Ryan Gomes for a trey on the previous possession. But then he suddenly hooked back upward in a tight circle toward the foul line, getting about two steps and four dribbles before sending a bounce pass across the paint to a driving Craig Smith, who laid it in while being fouled by Shane Battier. These are the kinds of moves that make you happy you are watching hoops–so simultaneously splashy and selfless and filled with David vs. Goliath imagery, and happening in such a flash that the collective roar of the crowd is what most ratifies the fact that you have just seen it.

And in fact we have not seen it very often in the history of the Timberwolves, where even successful points like Sam Cassell and Terrell Brandon didn’t exactly glide in for that flash, or polish up the feed on quite so shiny a silver platter. (That’s why Stephon Marbury was always regarded as the Judas of Wolves’ Camelot for bugging out on KG–and yes I just mixed about a half-dozen historical metaphors.) Hell, Telfair doesn’t do it that often, but tonight he made impartial observers wonder why you’d want a replacement–at least until he missed the jumper Houston dared him to shoot (he was 3-7 FG overall) with the Wolves down one with 51 seconds left to play.

Foye was horrible. Most of his passes were benign, around-the-horn types delivered either from a standing dribble or after he’d already picked up the ball, not off penetration. He wasn’t quick and he wasn’t smart and he was foolishly too confident for his incomplete recovery to game shape. His lone assist, versus four turnovers, occurred when he fed Al Jefferson at the foul line and Jefferson took a jab step to feint out his opponent and then sailed in off the dribble to slam it home–in other words, an assist that was generously awarded. Yeah, I know that Foye can be special, that he likes the pressure, scores most of his points in the fourth quarter, etc. etc. But people forget that last year he shared half-court sets with some pretty fair passers who demanded double-teams when they got the ball–Kevin Garnett and Ricky Davis. You could run the entire offense through either one of them, and in fact the Wolves did so on a variety of occasions when Foye was the "floor general." The other day, Foye told the media that everybody would know he was back and fully recovered when he had "a big game." I got the distinct impression that he meant 30 points a lot more than he meant a dozen dimes. Anyway, he now has five assists and nine turnovers in four games since his return.

Then there is Marko Jaric, owner of the team’s most bloated long-term contract, and tarnished by the unfortunate circumstance that he cost Minnesota not only Cassell (who had to go), but a still-to-be-sacrificed first round draft pick. At the beginning of the season, the Wolves could have "disappeared" both Jaric and Telfair and the faithful would have nodded their heads knowingly and figured it was an inevitable part of this rebuilding mop-up. Tonight each inspired in his own way. For Jaric it was chasing around sharpshooter Tracy McGrady until his uniform was sopped and nearly all the color (which wasn’t much to begin with) was drained from his Serbian face.

This was particularly stirring during the yeoman third period when Houston ran Jaric through innumerable picks and McGrady was given license to take a five-point halftime lead and parlay it into comfortable double-digits, if not an outright blowout. T-Mac yo-yoed on the perimeter, straining Marko through the screens, ever testing for penetration, or angling to get him aloft with an up fake. When the quarter was over, McGrady was 2-8 FG in those 12 minutes, and held scoreless from the jumper he hit at 10:59 to the free throws he made at 2:59. During those eight minutes Jaric was not marvelous or magnificent so much as unrelenting and tunnel-visioned, winning the third period battle even after McGrady’s trey put Houston back on top by 3 in the quarter’s final 67 seconds.

Although coach Randy Wittman gave Jefferson his first blow of the second half with 8:40 to go in the fourth quarter, he was appropriately loathe to replace Jaric with another defender on McGrady. But when Houston swelled the lead to 10 with 7:10 to play (with McGrady held scoreless in the 4th but with two assists), Witt needed more offensive firepower and subbed in Gomes for Jaric, sliding McCants over to guard T-Mac. McGrady promptly nailed a jumper from just inside the three-point line, then got into the paint (something that almost never happened with Jaric on him) and dished over to Bonzie Wells for a trey that negated two dime-initiated baskets by Telfair and kept the lead at 9. After that, McCants gathered himself and played pretty staunch defense. But McGrady jab-stepped left and nailed a 17-footer to give the Rockets back a one-point lead with 1:10 left to play, then essentially iced it with a trey with 31 seconds remaining to boost the Rockets’ lead to 4. Afterward, Wittman had the answer to my question about Jaric or McCants on T-Mac going before I could finish it, noting the lead that was widening, crediting both players with fine D on a very talented shooter, and saying that the plan had been to get Jaric back in the game at some point. But it didn’t happen.

2. Shaddy’s Snit

With 4:37 left in the second period, Rashad McCants was whistled for a charge on one of those calls that could have legitimately gone either way. But McCants was pissed and complained to the officials as the Wolves called timeout. After this extended harangue, Wittman caught Shaddy’s attention as he was headed toward the bench and harshly told him to get over to the sideline. McCants angrily threw his hand up in Wittman’s direction, turned his head away and yelled something on the order of "get fucked" as he went and sat down.

When play resumed, McCants was obviously still seething. After a trey by McGrady, Shaddy nailed a step-back jumper, but then Rafer Alston hit a three, boosting Houston’s lead to a game-high 10. McCants’ pass was then stolen by Wells, but Corey Brewer stole a McGrady pass in turn a
nd the Wolves headed down the court. When Jefferson fed the ball to Brewer for a jump shot, McCants was standing in the corner, first calling for the ball and then putting his hands on his hips and delivering a malevolent gaze at everyone. Shaddy’s fury was not lessened by the fact that Brewer hit the jumper and when Houston subsequently called timeout, he stalked to the bench in high dudgeon, yelling and screaming, presumably at the injustice of not getting the ball. Dressed in street clothes, Theo Ratliff came over first and tried to console him, or at least get him to pipe down. The coaches were still conferring with each other away from the sideline but the players couldn’t help but notice McCants going batshit and stole glances, mixed with a few sour looks, his way. When Witt and company came to the sideline and Wittman pulled out his chalkboard, McCants sat down to his right side. His back was to where I was sitting at this point, but it was obvious that his tirade was continuing because Mark Madsen (also in street clothes), a man of infinite patience and goodwill, got a dark look on his face and yelled out something, again presumably to quiet McCants. Finally, Wittman turned to his right, glowered at McCants, and hollared, either "get out of here" or "get the fuck out of here," but in any case, the way McCants’s shoulders kept moving, I assume he kept talking, until Wittman finally hollared again, "Shut up!" and then started to work on the upcoming play.

When the players broke the huddle, McCants was no longer in the game. McCants continued to talk while on the bench, no longer quite so angry but demonstrably making his case beside Foye, who looked like he simply wanted the whole episode to be over. Shaddy’s teammates likewise regarded his actions as annoying during this entire time. I honestly wondered if there would be a significant blowback. Up in his seats at halfcourt, VP Kevin McHale clearly had a notion as to what was going on and just as clearly didn’t look very happy about it.

Yet two minutes after the benching, Wittman called for McCants to re-enter the game with 52 seconds left in the half. And during the second half, McCants was given almost exactly the same minutes as in the first half, in almost exactly the same substitution pattern. So, on the surface at least, no hard feelings. When I asked Wittman about the "tiff" after the game, he asked what I meant by tiff. I repeated the "shut up!" part of the conversation and he said, with a good-natured smile on his face, "That’s coaching. When you tell a guy to shut up, it is time for him to shut up." And since it was already near the close of the post-game press conference anyway, he chose that point to walk away from the mic and end it there. McCants was already gone when I got to the locker room.

3. Honorable Mentions

Ho-hum, Al Jefferson had 33 points and 16 rebounds, although the four turnovers were a blemish. Meanwhile, unless Ryan Gomes is going off for 35, as he did against Golden State, or zero, as he did in the first of the back-to-back with Chicago, it is very difficult to know whether he has scored 6 or 25, because he gets them so efficiently in rhythm with the flow of the game. Tonight he had just two at the half, but posted ten more after the break, five in each of the third and fourth quarters, while outplaying his doppelganger Shane Battier, who was held scoreless in the second half and finished with just 5 points and 6 rebounds in 33:43.