Abbreviated Three-Pointer: No Tanking Here

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game #64, Road Game #31: Minnesota 121, Seattle 116

Season Record: 15-49

1. Engines In the Backcourt, Stoppers Up Front

My decision to keep a life and hold off on getting League Pass this NBA season is biting me this weekend, as the Wolves were short-circuited by a double-overtime hockey game (U of M vs. Mankato) that allowed me just 5 minutes of second quarter action (the hockey intermission between OT and 2OT) and then the last 20 minutes of the game (after Mankato St. won it, 1-0), from the 7:55 mark of the third onward. And tonight against Portland is blacked out. Hence the abbreviation of this trey.

But as luck would have it, the television feed clicked in just two minutes before the Wolves exploded for a 23-5 third-quarter run that transformed a 69-77 deficit into a 92-82 lead in just 5:26, the turning point of the ballgame. And they accomplished this with a lineup that almost certainly had never been deployed before, prompted first by Chris Richard subbing in for Al Jefferson, then Rashad McCants entering the game for Marko Jaric. Suddenly the Wolves had defensive stoppers as two out of three front court personnel–Richard and Kirk Snyder, with Ryan Gomes at the 4–and a couple of sticks of dynamite on the perimeter in Randy Foye and Rashad McCants.

Sonics coach PJ Carlissimo tried to staunch the outburst, using everyone in his 9-man rotation during that 5:26 stretch but Luke Ridnour, to no avail. McCants in particular found the sweet zone between sharing and selfishness, getting 11 points on 2-3 FG while drawing enough fouls to earn 6 trips to the line. Foye fostered ball movement and kicked off the burst with a trey. Gomes had five points, Richard and Snyder a pair of free throws each. But it was on the other end where the change really happened: With Richard/Gomes/Snyder all active in the paint, Seattle mustered just 2-9 FG, and their 5 points in 5:26 stood in stark contrast to the 116 they scored in 48–meaning they got 111 in the other 42:34.

Sounds like a simple plan: Spread the floor on offense with perimeter threats–Foye, McCants and Gomes all nailed treys in that 5:26 burst–who can also penetrate and either dish for open looks or draw the foul. Yes, Seattle is horrible defensively, but 23 points in 5:26 is good work against the junior varsity–it’s, ah, about 200 points per 48. And on defense, put a pair of sweat equity guys (Richard and Snyder) between the savvy Gomes and instruct them to negate the paint. Presto: Zero points in nearly 4 minutes of action for Chris Wilcox, who’s murdered the Wolves in all four games he played against them this season. Zero points for Kevin Durant, whose inability to solve Snyder has done more to raise Snyder’s defensive profile than any player in the league this season. Just two points for Nick Collison. Just 3 points for the backcourt of Gelabale and Watson. And that was the ballgame.

2. Another Rant About Jefferson At Center

There was a disheartening story in the Strib this week about Craig Smith–not the Rhino himself, of course, who is something of a feel-good tale, albeit one that won’t totally turn the frog into the prince. No, the head-slapping part was how the braintrust has told Smith they want him to work on his midrange game so that when he slots in alongside Al Jefferson in the frontcourt, they won’t be ruining each other’s spacing in the low block. The implication, of course, is one that the Wolves have been making in a dozen different, equally perplexing ways this season–that they foresee Jefferson as their center of the future.

Now there are times when the Jefferson-Smith tandem has been more effective than I would have imagined. It can be an interesting wrinkle, part of a lineup rotation that falls somewhere between a gimmick and the team’s bread-and-butter. But I fear the Wolves Jefferson in the pivot of whatever go-to quintet they assemble. Their quartet of relatively legit centers have been purposefully sliced and diced into discontinuity: Chris Richard leads with 310 minutes, followed by Theo Ratliff with 214, Michael Doleac with 206, and Mark Madsen with 130–by comparison, Randy Foye already has 632 minutes since returning from injury about a month ago. Obviously the idea of getting Jefferson accustomed to the center slot is more of a priority than keeping him at his natural power forward position. Meanwhile, the primary alternatives at the 4 have also been relative pipsqueaks–Craig Smith (6-7 is generous), Ryan Gomes (6-8 with small forward instincts) and Antoine Walker (6-9 outside gunner).

Normally smallball is designed to pick up the pace and ambush teams with quickness in transition. To push the polemic a little bit, however, what the Wolves have done is create a frontcourt that is both small *and* slow. That’s why they are 29th in blocks–at 3.65 a game ahead of only the listless Knicks–and 27th in scoring; not only 28th in fast break points but 29th in allowing fast break points, and 28th in creating points off turnovers–they get screwed on both ends of the small-and- quick versus large-and-slow equation. They *do* rank in the top 5 in second chance points, mostly because they grab more than 50% of the available rebounds despite their miserable FG%. These things are a tribute to Jefferson’s tenacity.

To update the argument, let’s go to some pretty stunning numbers versus Seattle last night. As usual, rather than playing a defensive-minded center like Richard beside Jefferson in a large duo, Wittman and the front office subbed one in for the other. And the numbers give a pretty good indication when Jefferson does not belong as the main man on defense beneath the hoop.

In the first quarter, the Sonics were 12-17 from the field until Richard replaced Big Al with 1:26 to play in the first, at which point Seattle shot 2-4 FG. When Richard was logging the 6:26 of the second period, Seattle shot 6-15, or 40%. When Jefferson came in to play the remaining 5:36, Seattle was a perfect 8-8 from the field. Got that? First half stats: Seattle shoots 8-19 FG with Richard in the game and a whopping 20-25 FG–80%!–with Jefferson as the last line of defense. Go the second half, which included that 2-9 FG stretch for the Sonics mentioned in the first point of this trey. With Jefferson on the floor for the first 3:07 of the third, Seattle shot 3-4 FG, which actually reduced the percentage the Sonics were shooting against him. When Richard too over for the final 8:53, Seattle shot 7-18. Okay, so after three periods, it is 15-37 against Richard and 23-29 FG against Jefferson.

Richard finished his night helping Seattle go 0-2 FG in the first 1:22 of the 4th quarter, by which point the Wolves had grabbed a commanding 101-88 lead. Understand that Jefferson is a proud man, who could see the disparity that was occurring between he and Richard on the court as keenly as anyone. In his concluding 10:38 of the game, he worked really hard on that end of the court, frequently biting on up fakes and making a determined effort to deny penetration, two things that provoked 3 fouls in that 10:38–all of them greeted with a passionate protest from Jefferson. But the good news is, Seattle shot only 8-20 FG during that 4th period, giving Jefferson a final mark of 31-49 FG, or 62%, versus Richard’s 15-39 FG, which works out to 38%.

Obviously these stark numbers are not quite that simple. There were always four players besides Jefferson or Richard working the defense, and that needs to be considered. But to me, the more glaring stat is the 0:00 that a limited scorer but hustle guy defender like Richard spent alongside a gifted scorer who has trouble on D like Jefferson. Finally, on the plus/minus end of things, Jefferson was minus -12 in 29:30 (despite shooting 8-13 FG, committing t
hree steals and blocking two shots) and Richard was plus +17 in the remaining 18:30.

3. Not Tanking

There will be the usual controversy about what teams are dogging it for the lottery and what ones are not. Right now, the Wolves will almost certainly finish ahead of Miami, and last night’s win puts them in a win tie with Memphis, just one behind Seattle. The Knicks are also in their sights. The arguments for and against tanking have been made ad nauseum. But for what it’s worth, I just want to give the ballclub credit for continuing to work hard to maximize their production on the court. Perhaps karma will reward them. Because it certainly seems karma has punished them the past two seasons, robbing their tank-centric draft picks of a second productive year in the league two times in a row (McCants and Foye).

Okay, the Portland tilt is on tap and I am sans visuals. For those who catch the game, educate us about it in the comments.