The Three Pointer: Finishing Strong

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game #66, Home Game #34: Los Angeles Clippers 90, Minnesota 99

Season Record: 16-50

1. Pick and Roll Call

The Clippers without Chris Kamen are a feel-good victim for a ballclub ready to generate some springtime momentum despite its inevitable trip to the lottery. Wolves coach Randy Wittman stomped and gyrated and spun and screamed and acted out for a good part of the game on the sidelines, then came in from the nine-point triumph and essentially praised everyone on the roster.

And with good reason. Abetted by a steady diet of pick-and-rolls–"we run more of them against [the Clippers] than any other team" Wittman said–Minnesota made at least half their field goals for the third straight game, held the Clips to 38.8% from the field, and used a 13-4 run in the first 3:42 of the 4th quarter to turn a two-point lead into double-digits and a relatively comfortable coast to victory.

With that said, let’s begin the roll call.

The easy story is Al Jefferson because it follows the classic arc of shame and redemption: Benched for horrid D Friday night against Seattle, challenged to improve at that end of the court for at least the last month, according to Wittman–"it is the next step for him"–Jefferson made a pair of tone-setting blocks on shots by Josh Powell and Tim Thomas in the first 1:10 of the game and then added another against Cuttino Mobley with 4:06 to play in the period. And in the second quarter he lunched Powell again at the 3:16 mark.

It ruins the plot to point out that those first three blocks didn’t really set the tone: The Clips were firing away at 53% (9-17 FG) during the first nine minutes of the game. But both Wittman and Jefferson were enthused about his defensive play, and the Kamen-less Clips–who also got a subpar effort from a dinged up Al Thornton–did only get 30 points in the paint, so if Big Al wants to use this one as a momentum changer toward a new emphasis on protecting the rim, no self-respecting Wolves fan should stop him. Especially with Memphis (Darko), Indiana (Jeff Foster) and the Knicks (Zach Randolph) on the dance card of what should be a very successful week.

I’d rather toss garlands at the invisible man, Ryan Gomes, who was second on the team to Marko Jaric in minutes-played, led in plus/minus at plus +15, and in scoring efficiency by getting 19 on 6-9 FG, 1-1 3pt and 6-6 FT–and was barely noticeable. Gomes was the only guy on the team who understood how to play offense in the first quarter, as the Clippers aggressively doubled Jefferson–move without the ball. Jefferson barged his way for 2-5 FG, and Kirk Snyder barreled into the lane for 1-3 FG and 3-4 FT. Meanwhile, dynamite sticks Foye (1-5 FG) and McCants (0-2) misfired from the perimeter. It was left to Gomes to school the lard-heavy (in brain and body) Tim Thomas, from the first points of the period (a 17 footer from near the baseline) to the last (a pretty layup on a deft dish from Corey Brewer). While the rest of the Wolves were shooting 5-18 FG, with none of the baskets assisted, Gomes was 3-4 FG, with dimes tossed in all three buckets, and 4-4 FT to account for 10 of the team’s 23 points. He added 5 more in the second quarter (including a trey) and then deferred once Minnesota discovered the pick and roll between the littles and the bigs, shooting just 1-2 FG in 17:15 in second half play, but chasing Thomas from the paint to the arc and helping out on rotations down low. The Barometer is holding steady: good, unsung game from Gomes, victory for Minnesota.

Plaudits also to Shaddy McCants, who had one of those games that makes you wonder why he isn’t registering 35-40 minutes per night. After a tepid first and early second quarter, he re-entered the game with 5:08 to play in the half and the Wolves down 2. In the space of 3:36, he nailed a trey on a feed from Foye, caught the Clips napping on a breakout transition layup courtesy of a baseball bullet pass from Snyder, then fed Jefferson for a turnaround 10-foot bunny, Gomes for a layup and Foye for a trey: 5 points, three assists, Wolves up 3 at the break.

McCants would have finished with 9 or 10 assists instead of 6 had Craig Smith not done an atypically poor job at finishing at the rim. Shaddy to Rhino was one of the choice spreads in the pick-and-roll bread-and-butter, with McCants delivering the bounce pass in rhythm nearly every time. Then there are the purely aesthetic delights, such as the Clips blocking the passing lane as the Rhino stampeded down the left lane, leaving McCants to dribble once, twice, and then right-dribble-to-left-hand crossover dribble as he’s moving left, only to right himself toward the hoop as he skies and squares in muscular ballet, nailing a 21-foot liner the way you and I toss a soggy paper towel in the wastebasket from across the room.

His 9 points on 3-3 FG, 1-1 3pt and 2-3 FT tied Smith for 4th quarter honors. He finished with 16 points on 10 shots, was a second-best plus +6, and contributed to Cuit Mobley and Quinton Ross (his two primary matchups) going 4-18 FG.

2. A Pleasing Display of Depth or Disappointing Development?

Among the evening’s plethora of solid performances were those lodged by Kirk Snyder and Marko Jaric, at both ends of the court. For Wolves’ fans this is of course a good thing, except that Snyder and Jaric got plenty of burn at the expense of Corey Brewer and Randy Foye, the coveted first-round draft picks for whom the Wolves’ tanked down the stretch the past two years.

The Jaric rescue effort is easier to take, because Foye has been on a bit of a roll lately. As nifty as Sebastian Telfair is at slinging the rock, Foye’s visually less pure floor generalship has nevertheless resulted in a greater spread of shots taken, producing more balanced scoring (and more scoring, period) and assist-making. His defense has been so-so at best, but Foye at the point has found a groove.

But not tonight. Where McCants and Jaric envisioned and initiated pick and rolls galore, fueling a collective 16/3 assist-to-turnover ratio, Foye was adrift, ignoring Wittman’s entreaties to pound the ball into Jefferson despite the double team and preferring to launch before the pick arrived. He finished the game 3-9 FG, with just 2 dimes and 2 miscues and sat for all but 36 seconds of that win-going-away 4th period, supplanted by Marko and his 5 assists in the final period alone. Yes, it would be preferable in the team’s future for Foye to have racked up another notch on his point guard credibility meter, while Jaric was the dunderhead. But it will take more than these occasional blips to recast doubts about Foye right now, and it’s a minor pleasure watching Jaric revel in his role as the steady, savvy vet.

Snyder and Brewer is another story. Corey Brewer is a very likable performer–he hustles, he’s smart, his demeanor is sunny and industrious, and he’s got the high profile championship college pedigree. By contrast, there’s something about Snyder that seems a tad too forced and strained, and besides, wasn’t he supposed to be little more than a bit part that enabled Minnesota to shed itself of Gerald Green and filch a second-round draft pick besides?

During the first half, Snyder did not live up to his role as the defensive stopper (same as Brewer’s), allowing Corey Maggette to run amok, a grievance partially mitigated by him burning Maggette for a pair of fouls and a trio of hoops at the other end. By the end of the night, Maggette had done his thing against both small forwards, getting 20 points in the 22 minutes Snyder guarded him and 14 in the 14:20 when Brewer was the matchup. Nevertheless, watching the game, you had the impression that Snyder was the more effective defensive foil–at 6-6, 225, his dimensions mirror Maggette’s (compared
to Brewer’s 6-9, 185), and he was more physical, if less constantly in his presence, than Brewer. Wittman confirmed as much by saying, in reference to Maggette’s game-high 34, that the Wolves didn’t have "another big 3 other than Ryan, and I wanted to keep him where he was."

Then there is the offense. After shutting down Kevin Durant in his first notable game in Minnesota, Snyder bricked enough shots to gain the rep of a defense-only guy. But he’s shown some signs of being able to get to the rim, and finished tonight a respectable 5-10 FG in 25:56. For Brewer, alas, it was the same old shaky aim. He was 1-7 FG in 24:05, with the make being a slam dunk–no funky jumpers converted. For the year he is a dreadful 139-387 FG, barely above 36%.

Snyder is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Brewer is expected to be a regular, if not a cornerstone, for this franchise for the next 5-10 years. Nearly every game he does something unique–tonight it was using his extra gear, the jet gear, to swoop in a snatch a rebound of an indifferent prayer-shot at the end of the half and immediately gather steam enough to fling a 3/4 court-length shot at the buzzer. Yet at precisely the time in the season when McCants and Foye began to figure it out and emerge during their rookie campaigns, Brewer is fading. When you’re a defensive stopper and a 24-year old competitor defends as well as you do and scores a little besides, well, it will take more than that to bump you out of the club’s blueprint. But it is still enough to sow a little doubt.

3. Give Me April-June Madness

As everyone marks their NCAA brackets, I’ll ignorantly claim that the Big East and Pac-10 will fare best, with Butler a huge sleeper and the Big 10 bounced by the final 16. Meanwhile, the Celts toppled the Spurs tonight, the Spurs 4th straight March loss, putting them in a tie with Dallas for the 6th seed in the West. Any one of the top nine teams in the West could lose in the first round. And if San Antonio has to play every series as a road team, the fiedl will be wide open.