The Three Pointer: A Thrilling Defeat

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Game #53, Home Game #28: San Antonio 100, Minnesota 99

Season record: 11-42

1. Crunchtime Dysfunction

The first thing I want to do is praise these post-All Star break Timberwolves, a ballclub that embodied the cliche "plucky" by refusing to do the expected thing and roll over and die after Manu Ginobili carved them up seven ways to Sunday (how’s 44 points on 18 FGA for efficiency?) and Tim Duncan found his fundamentals long enough to nudge his team up to the game’s first and only double-digit lead with 3:29 to play in the third period. This team is quickening, accruing confidence, and starting to identify itself via ball movement and Al Jefferson’s post-up game and a steadily improving team defense. They scrabbled back in that third period to set up a taut, well-played final period in which the lead for either team was never great than 5, was tied with 3:20 to play and was a one-possession game for the last 1:31.

The whole shebang was so much fun to watch that I want to say neither team lost it, the Spurs simply won it. Except that’s not true. Minnesota had two chances to ice a victory, coming downcourt with a one-point lead and 29 seconds to go and getting a final possession down a point with 6 seconds to go. During those two possessions neither leading scorer Jefferson nor second-leading scorer Rashad McCants touched the ball. On both possessions the crucial decision-maker was the (hopefully) still recovering Randy Foye and the final possession the shooter was Sebastian Telfair. To put it mildly, the Wolves did not have the right people doing the right things down the stretch.

Remember "4th Quarter Foye"? Randy Foye certainly does. It’s a nifty catchphrase, with its cogent rhythm and stark alliteration, but what it stands for isn’t all good. As Wolves’ publicity has informed us on numerous occasions, Foye got more than half his points in the final period last season. Translation: The guy the ballclub would really like to transform into its starting point guard looks for his when the game is in the balance. This could rightfully be spun as a hopeful attribute when the front office was casting about for a worthy sidekick and complementary talent to go with Kevin Garnett, who liked nothing better than to make the "right basketball play" to win the game, be it an assist, steal or turnaround jumper. But on a team with Al Jefferson still spreading his offensive blossom, nurtured by contact and grit in the paint, the abiding priority for 4th Quarter Foye should be to get him the rock in the low block by any means necessary.

Instead we got the alpha Foye in a beta situation. The first time he reprised his signature move still stencilled on last year’s scouting reports: A hard, guts-for-glory drive down the right lane that waits almost until he’s out of bounds before leaning in slightly and lofting hooky jumper that he hopes will bank in over the outstretched leap of a couple of converging defenders. Tonight it barely grazed the front iron. The second time he got the inbounds, sought to drive, got bolloxed up, ditto the double-team Jefferson, and, in mid-air, flailed the ball over to a wide-open Telfair near the top of the key. If you are San Antonio, this is a job well done: No touches for Jefferson, giving Foye’s ego enough rope to hang itself, and having the game decided on the do-or-die accuracy of Telfair’s J.It went back iron.

Coach Randy Wittman was trying to play the role of dejected loser, but was too enthused to keep the satisfaction from creeping into his voice when describing the game. And he’s right. Wittman bitched about a flagrant foul called on Telfair, who inadvertantly slugged Ginobili in the mouth when Manu went one way and Bassy the other out on the perimeter. Ginobili, who can take a dive on little or no contact, sold it beautifully and the Spurs had two foul shots *and* the ball with 1:40 to play and a two-point lead. Again, Wittman was right: obvious foul but just as obvious no flagrant foul. But at some other point in those last 100 seconds, Ginobili got mugged on a drive with no whistle, and although he showed the ref the scratches later (you gotta hate and love the guy) he took maybe a tenth of a second to beseech the ref when the play happened and then hustled hard back down the court. So yes, the free throws he hit off the flagrant counted mightily. But the winning margin of the game came when Ginobili got the ball with 10 seconds to play–as everyone who had just seen him go for 42 points thus far to that point *knew* would happen–then, after Foye cut off his brief left handed foray toward the hoop, slid to his right via a behind-the-back dribble, rose up and canned a 16-footer, the last of his 16 points in the final period. What "4th Quarter Ginobili" lacks in alliterative rhythm is more than compensated by the truth in advertising.

The point being, San Antonio got the ball to the guy they wanted to have it at crunchtime and the Wolves didn’t. Asked about those final two possessions, Wittman replied, "We wanted to run the clock down and then run a two-man game with Al and Foye…On the high pick and roll, Al was beating them all night…Al was our first option."

Over in the Wolves’ locker room, Jefferson was still sitting in his uni, large ice packs on both knees. A throng of nearly a dozen media did the pack-herd semicircle thing, microphones outstretched, like zoo animals reaching for food. In the adjoining locker to Jefferson’s, Randy Foye dressed in relative oblivion. He was not happy, but enough of a pro to take my questions in stride, albeit with clipped responses. What happened on the next to last possession–too much rust from the injury or did they defend it well? "It was good defense," he said. And on the last possession? "That was the play," he said, a little edgy. "They double-teamed me and Al and I kicked it over." After Foye and nearly all the media had left, I asked Jefferson if he felt he could have gotten the ball on either of the last two possessions. He gave it a second to plot the response. "Well, Bassy had a great look on that shot. If we had a chance to do it over again, he’d take that shot and he’d make it."

And the other play with the Foye layup that came up short? "We ran the pick and roll." Short pause. "Randy took the shot and missed." Longer pause, as Big Al gathers up the starch for his classy follow-through. "If we do it over again, Randy takes that shot and he makes it."

To put the game in perspective, Telfair came out aggressively with 6 points in the first 2:18 of the game and a team-high 8 for the period. He finished with 15 points on 7-14 FG. Jefferson was by-now typically marvelous at 11-19 FG, with many of the attempts a flat out race to see if he could get the shot off before the double team converged. He also got to the line 9 times and had 28 points (albeit just 5 rebounds). And Foye had his best game of the season thus far, with a team-high 7 assists and 13 points on 5-10 FG.

But all three sported nothing but gooseggs in those last two possessions.


2, Theo’s Return

For those of us excited to see Jefferson back at his natural power forward position beside a legit shot-blocking center, well, it happened for all of 2:16 in the fourth quarter tonight. Wittman used the remainder of Ratliff’s 14:11 of PT having his spell Jefferson in the pivot. For what it’s worth, the Wolves were plus +3 during the brief stint with Jefferson and Ratliff both in the game; othewise, Jefferson was a net zero and Ratliff at minus -4. The first thing Theo wanted to do after a 45-game layoff was shoot a jumper, but after he got that clank out of the way, he made his only other three attempts. While not
as striking as he was on opening day and for a week or two before he got hurt, he moved relatively well, yet needs a little more time to get his timing down. He didn’t block a shot tonight, while Jefferson and Duncan each swatted away a pair of the other’s layup attempts. VP of Personnel Kevin McHale says the front office wants to see how Jefferson and company operate with a shot-blocking big man patrolling beside them. Don’t we all, even on questionable matchups like the Dallas front line, which is likely to be Dampier-Dirk-Josh Howard. Counter with Theo-Jefferson-Brewer and let’s see what happens.

3. Trades

I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a player with a bigger gap between his physical talent and his strategic comprehension than Gerald Green. Both the Wolves and Green are best separated, and if the second round pick two years hence yields a shot-in-the-dark glue guy or the cash considerations Houston threw into the deal along with Kirk Snyder help pay for Corey Brewer’s weight supplements, than perhaps the trade won’t be quite as insignificant as it seems today. Snyder is not likely to stick here. As for Green, you can never say never about a performer with that much spring and such sweet mechanics on his jumper, but until the technology develops to put a chip in his ear telling him what to do next on defense, I fear Green will forever wander the hardwood–sometimes with his headband on, sometimes without.

The Wolves may rue not getting rid of Antoine Walker (not that they didn’t try, I’ll bet), whose tenure as solid citizen and cheerleader/mentor is wearing thin for him as the playoffs approach and the trading deadline has come and gone. ‘Toine was in street clothes tonight and the body language and derisive smirk he couldn’t keep off his face may be a portent of trouble ahead.

In the deadline day’s other swaps, the three-team merry-go-round between Chicago, Cleveland and Seattle favors the Cavs. I honestly don’t know how much Ben Wallace has left in the tank, but a proud pro on his last legs has a potent incentive helping to enable LeBron to get his first ring. More significant is the pickup of Delonte West, who has looked impressive every time I’ve seen him play and, if he plays defense, has a good shot at regular minutes at the point on this team. And Wally Szczerbiak may be due to become a sharpshooting 9th man on a legit playoff contender. Joe Smith is a gamer. As a Mike Brown fan, I think he might be able to wheedle these pieces into something decent by the first round of the playoffs. In any event, Drew Gooden is overrated and Larry Hughes, while occasionally magnificent on D, is injury-prone and grossly overpaid.

I have no idea what the Bulls are doing. With Hughes and Gooden added to Sefalosha and Noah and Deng and Gordon likely leaving in a year or so, they are going to win and lose a lot of 88-85 games. But how bad does shipping out Tyson Chandler and bringing in Wallace look now?

Seattle is still tearing down for the future. Can you believe Kurt Thomas has brought them three top draft picks? Meanwhile, Steve Kerr has to hope the Suns don’t face the Spurs early in the playoffs, because it could be Kurt Thomas demonstrating how foolish it was to get Shaq when they could have gotten better defense and a more simpatico style player for much less money. The Spurs are smart; Thomas fits better than Francisco Elson, Brent Barry is slipping fast and that 2009 pick won’t be worth much unless the inevitable happens quickly and this team gets old and hurt in an epidemic hurry.