The Three Pointer: Lost in the Crunch

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

Game #63, Home Game #33: Portland 103, Minnesota 96

Season Record: 14-49

1. When It Matters Most

Al Jefferson did not score a single point in the first 19 minutes and 4 seconds of this game, which I’d wager is his longest drought of the season thus far. By the time he grabbed an offensive rebound and tossed in the putback, three of his teammates–Marko Jaric, Rashad McCants and Craig Smith–were already in double figures and the Wolves were up 5. In the locker room after the game, Jefferson sprawled easily in his chair and exclaimed that the situation showed "that my teammates had my back." This is the way a leader talks.

The screws were turned for almost this entire game, making it one of the more enjoyable to watch this year. There were no double-digit leads, 16 ties, and 18 lead changes. In such a game you knew that Jefferson’s prominence would steadily rise, and you suspected that on Portland’s side, a similar dynamic was coalescing around combo guard Brandon Roy.

And so it went. Jefferson’s point totals through three periods were 0-2-6. Roy’s were 7-5-6. In the 4th quarter, Jefferson led all scorers with 12 points, shooting 6-9 FGs, while the rest of his teammates shot 2-13 FG and coughed up a 5-point lead in an 18-6 run over the final 6:06 of the game. Asked if he got frustrated with the disparity between his own accuracy and that of his teammates during these final 12 minutes, Jefferson replied, "I got frustrated with myself for missing shots and tried to get myself going."

Roy led his team in fourth quarter field goals (3-5), free throws (3-4), points (9) and assists (2). "Roy got to the rim," Wolves coach Randy Wittman stated. "They didn’t settle for 25-foot jump shots."

Let’s address this Brandon Roy versus Randy Foye thing head-on for a moment. Through no fault of his own, Foye is apparently destined to be bedeviled with Roy comparisons, due to the Wolves drafting Roy and immediately trading him for Foye. Since Roy was Rookie of the Year during Foye’s rookie year and was an all-star while Foye’s sophomore pro season has been spent recovering from a knee injury, it is difficult to claim, at this point anyway, that the Wolves got the better of the deal.

Roy is one of those players better appreciated in person than on the stat sheet. There is a marvelous placidity to his style, a level-headedness that has a calming, confidence boosting effect on his team. From the Wolves being up 90-87 with 5:48 to play, he keyed a 14-4 run over the next 5:14, either scoring or assisting on every point but James Jones’s three-pointer, including two kamikaze drives through traffic that, as Wittman admiringly noted, finished at the rim.

Foye did not have one of his better crunchtime performances, going a little too strong on his classic running banker down the right lane with 1:32 to play and Portland up 2, 94-92, and then having a similar shot swatted away by Joel Przybilla with the Wolves down 7, 101-94, at 34 seconds to go. The contrast was sharp.

But the greater point here is overall crunchtime leadership–those who have it and those who don’t. And on that count, Foye has shown a willingness and proclivity to make big shots. To further the bedevilment, he doesn’t offer the same versatility of ways to beat you that Roy seems to, and his ballhandling and overall mien is less calming than it is propulsive and perhaps infectiously energizing.

Crunchtime prowess is probably the most compelling argument for starting Foye at point guard ahead of Sebastian Telfair, even when Telfair returns and is healthy enough to play. As eye-opening as Bassy has been in terms of floor generalship and pacemaking, we have seen, more than once, what happens when opponents practically dare Telfair to shoot when the game is on the line. Meanwhile, opponents would not be remiss in doubling Foye, or at the least preparing for his hell-bent-for-leather traipse down the right lane.

As a longtime defender of Kevin Garnett, I know how skewed and inaccurate the "can’t score in the clutch" epithet can be; but, that said, understand why someone would invoke crunchtime as a means of separating Lebron James and Kobe Bryant from KG among the top 3 MVP candidates this season. Some guys, for better or worse, in wisdom or lopsided ego, just want to seize these make or break moments. Some don’t.

And some shouldn’t, which brings me back to the "Lost in the Crunch" title of this trey. Marko Jaric had a nice game tonight: a dozen points, six assists, three steals and zero turnovers. But is anyone surprised that Jaric had 10 of those 12 points in the first period on 4-5 FG and was scoreless in 5:57 of the 4th, with his only FGA a wild, ill-advised airball on a left handed layup attempt with Portland up 1 with 4:30 to play? Is anyone surprised that Shaddy McCants nailed his first 7 shots, executing that jab-step, pull-back-and-shoot move to literal perfection, and went 7-8 FG through three quarters, only to go 1-4 FG in the fourth, culminated by an airball trey with Portland up 5 and less than a minute to go? And is anyone surprised that Corey Brewer strode into a long jumper in rhythm yet still clanked it, then mimicked Jaric’s crazy drive to the basket and left handed airball–two shots that comprised half of his 0-4 FG evening–during the crunchtime swoon?

After the game, Wittman tempered his criticism of the 4th quarter offense, obviously in deference to the confidence of this clank crew. "We had our chances," he said. "We had good looks. Ryan had several good looks." That would be Gomes, the superglue and team barometer who likewise has proven to be shaky in the clutch. He went 0-2 FG in the 4th tonight, but was missing wide open looks most of the evening en route to his 5-14 FG performance, further besmirched by his zero assists and 2 measley rebounds (such are the hazards of guarding Joel Przybilla, who doesn’t score but boxes out pretty well).

BTW, here’s a link to the "Clutch Stats Chart" at 82games.com:

http://82games.com/CSORT11.HTM

 

2. Free Throw Bugaboo Strikes Again

At the 5:55 minute mark of the third period, Foye committed yet another of the team’s dumb, reach-instead-of-shuffle fouls on defense, putting Portland in the penalty. At the time Minnesota had hit 8-9 FT, almost exactly the same as Portland’s 9-10 FG, and the Wolves were up 68-65. I leaned over to Myles Brown of slamonline.com and said, here comes a free throw parade. If the Wolves can stay within ten FTs of Portland, they’ll win. Otherwise, they’ll lose.

Well, Minnesota never again got to the free throw. The Blazers got 16 more free throws, and made 13–more than enough to turn a 3 point lead into a final 7 point deficit. And to anyone who has watched the team play this season, my prescience wasn’t that visionary, in fact rather predictable. Minnesota is next to last in the league in the number of free throws they shoot and have the fifth largest amount of free throws shot against them. That’s how you can score more field goals than your opponents over the course of 63 games and still be 14-49. Opponents have converted a whopping *433* more free throws than Minnesota, which works out to 7 points per game.

As usual, tonight was a combination of stupid fouls on defense and a lack of foresight and aggression on offense. McCants and Gomes were chief offenders of the cheap, reach-in type that is a Wolves’s specialty. And in postgame remarks, Wittman called out his team for not attacking the rim when Portland’s big, especially Aldridge and Pryzbilla, showed hard on the pick and roll, leaviing the lane open to express layups.

3. Hit and Run

Sure hope it is the Gator rook’s nagging thigh bruise and not some "extended look" or pecking order shenanigans that has Kirk Snyder getting many of the early minutes–including the starter’s minutes–that not so long ago belonged to Corey Brewer.

Yet another too-small sample size and yet another decent plus/minus–a team-best zero–for Chris Richard tonight.

Crazy schedule makers had the Wolves out west, then back home for one game tonight versus Portland, then back out to the West Coast. Would a road game in Portland that saved two flights given them more of a shot at victory than a home drive-by ?