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Game # 58, Home Game #31: Seattle 111, Minnesota 108
Season Record: 12-46
1. An Improving Beast
During Kevin Garnett’s dozen years with the Wolves, I wrote a slew of game recaps which included as a stock phrase the caution that people shouldn’t take the incredibly high-level consistency KG was offering for granted. I think I’m safely on the record as saying that Al Jefferson is not, and probably never will be, the versatile monster that Garnett is on the court, but here goes my first-ever time pointing out that you do Big Al a disservice ignoring or downgrading his tremendous effort in the overtime loss to Seattle last night.
Jefferson started the game shockingly cold from the field, bereft of his now famous touch around the hoop. He faked Johan Petro out of his jock and then drove left baseline, only to sail an airball in a manner that made it seem like he thought he was going to get fouled and went too strong. But he did it again later in the first quarter, on his patented spin move where you wonder how he knows where the hoop is–this time he didn’t, for airball 2. In between, he received a perfect feed in stride from Sebastian Telfair headed straight down the lane, only to barely graze the front iron with his floater, snatch the offensive rebound, and then travel while attempting the putback. He missed his first five shots and the Wolves, beseiged by bad matchups at the other end due to their small lineup (more on that later), fell behind by 10 before he finally got on the board via a fast-break layup off a Corey Brewer steal with 1:58 to play in the first. At the half he was 3-11 FG and Minnesota was still down 7, 51-58.
But great players will themselves past off nights, and that’s exactly what Jefferson did in the second half. His 4-7 FG fueled Minnesota’s 3rd quarter surge into a one-point lead heading into the final period, and his 4th quarter was a demonstration of unstoppable thirst for baskets against double and triple teams as the Wolves fought tenaciously to hold their slim lead. After getting his early-quarter blow, he entered with 7:14 left to play and the score tied. Within two and a half minutes, he had a slam dunk, a baseline-spinning four-foot banker on the left block, and–a new wrinkle–a 5′ jump hook moving left to right across the lane. On the latter two baskets he was gang-guarded by Nick Collison, Damian Wilkins, Chris Wilcox. Didn’t matter. Wolves up by 5 with 4:45 to play.
Yes, Jefferson and Craig Smith had difficulty containing Wilcox at the other end. There is no question that a defensive-oriented, shot-blocking center would be the ideal complement. But let’s talk about Jefferson’s most obvious leap forward during this game–his passing. After he’d consistently schooled the Sonics in crunchtime, he saw the looming triple-team and shrewdly dished it out to Corey Brewer for a wide-open look. When Brewer’s shot clanged, Jefferson bulled his way for the longish rebound, and then, with Seattle determined to thwart the putback, he rose up and dumped it down by the hoop to Craig Smith for an easy layup, his career-high fifth assist of the evening. (Smith likewise had a career-high five dimes, continuing his recent push for more stable and vital playing time.)
To bring this Garnett-like point in the trey full circle, folks can rightly point out that Jefferson didn’t finish when it mattered, missing four of five field goal attempts and two crucial free throws during the overtime. Certainly fatigue might have played into this. At the end of regulation, Jefferson had scored 20 points in 20:05 of grueling, pressure-packed action in the second half, sinking 9-13 FG and 4-5 FT, the last two coming with 15 seconds left to play and the Wolves up two, 99-97. But I’d rather simply say, without Jefferson, there is no overtime happening in the first place. On a night when he clearly was out of sync with his shooting rhythm for most of the first half, he finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists, with the vast majority of those points coming with the game on the line and the opponents dead-set on ensuring that he wasn’t the player who beat them. That’s stardom treatment. And while it would certainly be nice if Jefferson became even a consistently mediocre defender, stardom is where he’s headed.
2. Smallball Mistakes and Motley Mismatches
It was interesting to note that nobody–Jefferson, Smith, Wittman–seemed especially disheartened by the loss, perhaps knowing that playing hard, entertaining games while positioning themselves for more ping-pong balls is not a bad outcome for a ballclub that just dumped Theo Ratliff and have the word "build" prominent in its new marketing campaign. (Fresh removed from two championships, Corey Brewer was the exception, dejectedly talking about the free throw that likely would have iced the game for Minnesota in the 4th quarter.)
Anyway, it wasn’t with real rancor but simple force that Wittman said "I thought we were a little too relaxed coming out at the start. It put us behind the 8-ball…it lost us the game. The defense went through the motions…we defended nobody…and we didn’t move the ball like we were capable of doing."
Nowhere was the subject of smallball included in this litany. And yet as the two teams began feeling each other out in the opening minutes, it was patently clear that the Sonics enjoyed two glaring mismatches: the 6-10 Wilcox on 6-8 Ryan Gomes at the power forward slot, and 6-4 Randy Foye trying to guard 6-9 Kevin Durant at the off-guard slot. If Wilcox hadn’t been cold from the field–he missed some easy looks over Gomes down low–Seattle might have played the perfect quarter. As it was, you throw out Wilcox’s 2-6 FG, and Seattle was a whopping 12-13 FG in the first quarter, and a perfect 11-11 FG inside the three point arc. Durant led the way with an almost casual 11 points on 4-4 FG and 3-3 FT. And Wilcox used his superior height and paint-jousting experience to outrebound the entire Wolves’ ballclub in the period, 7-6
Things finally began to even out when Wittman subbed in Smith for Telfair with 2:35 to play in the period and the Wolves down 8. To Wittman’s belated credit, we never saw that pipsqueak starting five (Jefferson-Gomes-Brewer-Foye-Telfair) together again, and Wittman discovered that Kirk Snyder was his best stopper on Durant, throwing the gritty Utah and Houston castoff with the Mr. Potato Head nose in for 32:39 of the game’s final 40 minutes. Snyder knew what he was supposed to do, which put him about 4 years ahead of the person he was traded for, Gerald Green, already. Aside from 6 shots (he made 2), the largest number on his stat line was the 5 steals he registered, frequently on strips of Durant as the prolific-scoring rook was bringing the ball up to shoot in penetration. After the game, Jefferson called him a "tougher Corey Brewer" (then quickly amended it with copious praise for the heavy defensive role Brewer is already undertaking as a rookie), but Snyder reminded me more of a taller, perhaps quicker, Greg Buckner, a fine defensive presence who is among the many vets on the roster lost in the youth shuffle this season.
Bottom line, while you could call this game entertaining and hard-fought, it was not particularly well-played, especially on defense. Minnesota is 20th in the league in points allowed–pretty sorry, considering they are next-to-last in points scored and thus don’t have the excuse of pace like Golden State or Phoenix–and Seattle is 25th. The two clubs combined were 90-173 FG. Snyder may have clamped down on Durant to compel his 4-14 FG shooting after the first period, but Foye and Telfair continued their matador ways with the point guards–Earl Watson shot 6-7 FG and Luke Ridenour went 5-8, for a combine
d 28 points and 16 assists. Chris Richard, Smith and Jefferson couldn’t prevent Nick Collison from shooting 5-5 FG in the second period. And, in perhaps the best argument against constant smallball and the habits it engenders, the Wolves never could solve Wilcox, who sank 6-9 FG after that cold first period, grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds and was and incredible plus +15 in 42:42 of play, meaning the Sonics were minus -12 in the 11:18 he sat on the bench. With Doleac and Madsen in limbo, Ratliff cut, and Richard a sparsely deployed rookie, the Wolves default enforcement of the paint.
3. Quick Hits
Wittman took pains to point out that when Brewer missed the free throw with 10 seconds to play, the Wolves gambled on two steal attempts that enabled Durant to glide for a layup in transition just 6 seconds later to send the game to overtime. And he correctly noted that those types of steal attempts are what you do when you’re behind, not protecting a lead. Point taken. But is anyone else enjoying the tone Brewer (and, when healthy, Jaric) seems to be setting for the entire defense in terms of ambushing the passing lanes. Just a week after falling one steal short of the team-record 17 in a win over Utah, Minnesota filched 14 more last night, including Snyder’s five and three apiece from Brewer and Smith (who stuffed the stat line).
Folks are fond of blasting Wittman’s end of game manuevers, and I’ve been fond of calling out Foye’s crunchtime ego. So let’s everybody note that Foye properly and conscientiously deferred to Jefferson during that 4th quarter glory and stepped up with two overtime buckets (after registering just a free throw in the 3rd and 4th quarters) when Jefferson was clanking in OT. And let’s note that both Wittman and Foye did everything right on the final play of regulation, when the ball went to Foye, he saw Jefferson covered, and kicked it to a wide open Ryan Gomes near the corner, who flat-lined the jumper off the back iron.
Durant’s 25 points don’t compensate for his lackadaisical mien, indifferent defense, and tendency to ball hog. The kid is long, and is going to be a very potent scorer for a long time, but I’d hold off on the superstar jabber, or even rookie of the year talk. Luis Scola over in Houston is proving the Rockets don’t necessarily need the overrated Yao Ming to continue their playoff push. He’s my ROY.