Game #74, Road Game #36: Minnesota 100, Utah 117
Season Record: 19-55
1. One-Way Jefferson
Those who check the box score will surmise that Al Jefferson had one of his worst games of the season tonight as the Wolves were routed by Utah, who turned a close and enjoyably contested first half into a blowout with a 38-22 pasting in the third quarter en route to a 117-100 final. I’m posting this quickly and thus am unaware if Jefferson was benched for the entire 4th quarter because he was ailing, or Wittman was displeased with his performance, or merely because it was the frustrating back end of a two-nighter that the Wolves weren’t going to pull out in the final 12 minutes anyway.
The line shows Jefferson with a remarkably anemic two rebounds, zero assists and 12 points on 5-13 FG and 2-2 FT in 27:49 of action. What the box score doesn’t reveal is that Big Al had one of his more dedicated and effective defensive performances of the year, limiting Carlos Boozer to 5-12 FG and just 12 points (although Boozer did grab 7 rebounds and pass for 4 assists). There weren’t any of the gaudy blocked shots that have raised the shoddy reputation of Jefferson’s defense in recent weeks (although he had a beautiful block that Joey Crawford, a once-great ref who had another in a series of bad nights in recent years, ruled a foul). But there was a stauch commitment to preventing points by the opposing team’s top scorer. For all the times I ripped Jefferson’s D while he was posting 24 and 15 in a mid-winter Wolves loss, I owe him the nod that he did himself proud on one end of the court once again tonight.
And there’s the rub: Although not to the dramatic extent we saw tonight, there seems to be a correlation between the improvement in Jefferson’s defense and a slight dropoff in his points and rebounds. I remember two or three years ago when the Wolves started asking Trenton Hassell to play a larger role–a #2 or #3 option–on offense, and he told me in the locker room that quality defense took so much out of him that he wasn’t sure he could step up like that. (Hassell’s scoring did improve fairly significantly during that experiment and his defense dipped slightly.)
The point is, Jefferson expends an enormous, and underappreciated, amount of energy getting his points. He’s scoring in the toughest part of the court, the paint, against teams whose top defensive priority is to stop him, usually with two players and/or specific schemes. And being an undersized center all year long, he’s also had to battle folks as big or bigger than him for rebounds. Throw in the bump and grind of deterring a gritty and wily low post scorer like Boozer on the tail end of a home-road back-to-back and it’s not surprising that the man came up short.
2. Foye or McCants
I am becoming convinced that there are Foye people and McCants people. Both players have really excitable and excreable aspects to their games and honest appraisals of both should resemble a roller coaster, given how inconsistent both players have been and how capable they are of engendering hope and disgust not only from game to game but stint to stint within games. I know I’ve lauded and lambasted each one with a yo-yo regularity.
I confess that Foye has genuinely raised my ire more often this season, despite the fact that he’s played fewer games than Shaddy, and I think it’s because I believe Foye is more a part of the future firmament for this franchise than is McCants. I don’t imagine the Wolves are going to keep both players around for the next two or three years and if a choice is made, McCants will be the one packing his bags.
The reason I feel this way is because when the team wiped the slate clean with the KG trade, much was made internally about getting high character guys who mesh in the locker room and on the court and foster the kind of synergy required to be a perpetual playoff team. And Shaddy’s volatility doesn’t fit that definition as well as Foye’s comparative "maturity" and magnanimity. Now there is a good chance this intuitive thinking on my part is inaccurate (for example, the entire dynamic may change if a stud point guard falls to the team in the draft or another ballclub likes Foye or McCants enough to make an attractive trade offer). That’s why I haven’t raised it before, and wouldn’t be talking about it now, except that I have to acknowledge that Foye’s foibles are more irksome to me than Shaddy’s.
Like his complete inability to guard his man. A night after rook Rodney Stuckey showed him up, he stepped up in class in a major way going against Deron Williams, and Williams toyed with him. Sure, as happened last night, Foye posted decent numbers, and finished with 15 points and 6 assists. But after three quarters, Williams was a perfect 7-7 from the field, and had 13 assists and no turnovers. Can a defender be undressed any more thoroughly than that? D-Will’s dribble penetration consistently broke down the Minnesota defense, setting up a large advantage in points in the paint *and* better than 50% shooting from behind the arc. That’s why after three periods, Williams had a game-best plus +21 and Foye had a game-worst minus -21.
Given that Foye is more the rugged type of point guard at 6-4, 213, and is coming off a significant knee injury, one might think a quick opponent like Stuckey would give him trouble. But then he should be a better matchup for Williams, who is 6-3, 205, and quicker of thought than he is of foot. Nope, resoundingly nope. So if Foye can’t guard Stuckey (27 points last night) and Williams, who can he guard?
Now folks who are aggravated by McCants were probably throwing things at their televisions when Shaddy was ignoring his teammates and jacking up treys, or coming up a step slow on defense himself on occasion. It certainly felt that way on occasion. But the thing is, McCants made more than half his shots (6-11 FG), including his treys (3-5 from 3pt), and, as usual, posted a plus/minus (minus -5) that was relatively better than most of his teammates, an ongoing phenomenon that has occurred whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. Announcers Tom Hanneman and Jim Petersen frequently mentioned that McCants had a bad game last night against the Pistons–and he did shoot 1-9 FG. But I thought Foye’s performance was more injurious in the loss, and there was no mention of Foye’s bad game versus Detroit. Maybe Hanny and Pete are "Foye people."
3. And As For the Small Forwards…
Kirk Snyder has taken a step back since Wittman’s decision to reinsert Corey Brewer into the starting lineup. Tonight, defending Matt Harpring (the matchup that prompted Witt to give him more minutes early in his Wolves tenure), he was outhustled in the paint and in transition more often, and just didn’t have that spark he showed in his first few appearances off the bench and then always as a starter.
Meanwhile, Brewer continues to be a high energy, high IQ performer who is a suspect shooter, to put it charitably, and physically overmatched on many occasions. Tonight he popped for a decent 4-9 FG and got to the line 4 times (albeit three of them in garbage time), but had just one rebound and zero dimes in 24:24.
Bonus fourth point: J-Pete noted how Jefferson was being bodied by Mehmet Okur on D, who was also able to wrest rebounds away from Gomes down low, and called for a little Jefferson-Chris Richard tandem on the front line. It was a temporary plea to short-circuit the smallball. But I’ve talked about that enough already.