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Game #75, Road Game #37: Minnesota 88, Phoenix 117
Game #76, Home Game #39: Memphis 113, Minnesota 101
Season Record: 19-57
1. Jefferson Finally Cracks
The Timberwolves offered themselves and their fans a choice of embarrassing performances over the weekend: Which do you prefer, an annihilation so complete there was literally 38 minutes of garbage time (the Wolves trailed Phoenix 32-12 with 2:10 to play in the first) or being sluggish early and tepid late in order to drop an eminently winnable home game against one of the few opponents with inferior personnel (Sunday’s loss to Memphis)?
The Phoenix blowout was the more sobering because it was the first time this season that Al Jefferson was plainly rattled. Even when he was getting lunched a half-dozen times by Samuel Dalembert back in ’07, Jefferson was indomitable and his aggression with respect to both wiles and willpower have been the signature virtue for this ballclub this entire season. So when Jefferson seemed so out of sync and disinclined to bull his way into the paint–and, not incidentally, Shaquille O’Neal–that he couldn’t even coordinate his footwork with his dribble, the Wolves were doomed, injured in the head as well as the heart.
After torching Phoenix for monster games that keyed improbable Minnesota wins twice this season, it just flat-out looked like Jefferson didn’t want to be out there Friday night. After Sunday’s game, someone remarked to coach Randy Wittman that Jefferson only had one shot in the entire first half against Memphis, and Witt was quick to pounce, saying "That was Al, nothing but his doing." The coach added that the second half Sunday was the first time in awhile Jefferson "had been Al Jefferson," that what he had been doing before was "asking for the ball 15, 20 feet from the basket" and the Wolves weren’t going to reward that. Asked if fatigue was a factor, Wittman said yeah, it probably was, but that the guy Jefferson was replacing–KG was inferred, not mentioned outright–played all 82 most of the time. He added that he was proud Jefferson had played all 76 games for the Wolves this year and that it was important to finish strong.
I sat next to Stephen Litel of Hoopsworld, who mentioned that Jefferson’s voice indicated he had the flu or something before the game. He mentioned some other things about their interview that were interesting and that I imagine he will publish soon if he hasn’t already.
In any case, the daily beat writers have duly noted that Jefferson is in a bit of a slump, at least statistically, lately. He’s already exceeded his career highs in games and minutes-played by a fairly wide margin. I still think his defense has begun to improve, although it is hard to know against Phoenix because Amare Stoudamire is like a man unleashed since the Shaq acquisition–he’s not only going beserk on offense, but deigning to cover his man with some diligence lately. Today against Memphis, the large mobile swingmen, Mike Miller and Rudy Gay, were the tandem that thrashed the Wolves, neither of them Jefferson’s man on D.
2. Wittman Still Barking; Are Players Listening?
Last year, I disrespected Randy Wittman’s performance because he walked in declaring that he was going to hold players accountable and then called out some players directly (Trenton Hassell) and indirectly (Kevin Garnett and his locker room leadership) while Ricky Davis personified corrosive dysfunction and Mark Blount laid down like a dog without a public peep out of Witt in either case.
This year, Wittman hasn’t been afraid to pull out the carrots or the sticks on any and every player on the roster, and the absence of a double-standard represents an improvement. In the past week or so, the coach has also seemed particularly caustic–and specific in both the nature of his criticism and the punishment. Against Memphis, he told Marko Jaric and Corey Brewer exactly why they were being yanked as they went to the bench, and didn’t mince words with Randy Foye either.
But there’s a chicken-or-egg dynamic that needs to be addressed here. If I was coaching the team the past two games, I’d go batshit on them too, probably–but is all that haranguing precisely why the effort and grit have begun to wane as the meaningless games pile up in the spring? It’s a very subtle line, but the body language exhibited by the players as they’re being blistered is less deferential and respectful, and certainly more dismissive. It is way too dramatic to say that Witt is "losing the team," given that there literally isn’t that much to lose, quite frankly, and that it is hard to motivate any ballclub that owns less than 20 wins in April. But if the idea was to finish strong–for example, Wittman said he was disappointed because overcoming Memphis in the standings had become a late-season goal–well, that isn’t happening, and there’s only six left to play.
3. Shaky Cornerstones and Robust Afterthought
There are few things worse that Rashad McCants knowing that it is garbage time–the "I’ll get mine" shots rain down–but two of them are Al Jefferson and Randy Foye being the abysmal catalysts for that premature garbage. Jefferson we’ve already discussed. Foye followed up two dreadful defensive performances against Detroit and Utah with a totally disinterested and mentally casual game versus Phoenix. After he inexplicably launched a airball three pointer for no reason whatsoever with about 15 seconds on the clock Friday, Wittman almost had no choice but to give him a quick hook, and indeed, McCants climbed off the pine almost before that stupid shot hit the floor.
The theory I’ve been toying with as for why Foye has regressed recently has to do with leadership. He was obviously the heart and soul of a very talented Villanova team in college, and I assume the same was true in high school. His rookie year he’s naturally going to be very deferential to KG, yet he still manages to snag a niche–"4th Quarter Foye"–and make the all-rookie team. After Garnett was dealt this summer, Foye attended preseason media day loudly announcing that he was now the leader of this ballclub.
Then he goes down before all this new personnel really gets a chance to see anything out of him. While he’s rehabbing, Jefferson steps to the fore, slathered in gushing praise from the VP of Personnel, who is essentially saying that Al Jefferson is the next Kevin McHale, and will someday eclipse even that. Now McHale had his reason for touting Jefferson so highly that are bound up in basketball philosophy, kindred styles, and butt covering on a huge trade that, even if successful in the long run, represents a failure for McHale for having to make it in the first place. But the net effect is that it is impossible for Foye to assert himself as even co-leader of the club any time this season.
Foye’s most egregious mistakes this year–some weird statements about the point guard position, for example, and a lack of deference and feeding of Jefferson at crunchtime in favor of taking the shot–make more sense if you consider that he’s had to grapple with a setback in the pecking order as well as physically with his own body this season. The "little" things he hasn’t done well, like defend, and generate some consistency in terms of shot selection, reflect a player trying to figure out for himself what his role is on this team–and I don’t mean point guard or shooting guard; I mean co-leader with Jefferson, chief sidekick to Jefferson, crunchtime go-to guy, etc. As much as Wolves fans worry about him being able to play a set position, maybe an equal concern is whether he can accept a set role–like #2 guy, or less.
Then there is Kirk Snyder, who w
as probably the best overall Wolves player this weekend. Yes, Snyder’s defense has slipped a bit recently–he was one of the multitude who couldn’t guard Rudy Gay Sunday, but he draws fouls, gets to the rim, and dishes off penetration better than any none point guard on the club, and plays a hard, physical style that is very handy to have contained in your 8th, 9th or 10th man. Snyder could carve a role for himself at the end of a bench on a very good team, the one who steps in for 10-20 minutes a night for 2-3 weeks when injuries have depleted a roster and prevents a steep drop in quality of play and emotional momentum. He might even be more than that. Yet for about three solid weeks now, he has outplayed Corey Brewer. It says something about the Wolves’ doldrums that that passes for good news nowadays.