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Game #77, Road Game #38: Minnesota 119, Charlotte 121
Season Record: 19-58
1. Plenty of Blame To Go Around
Coach Randy Wittman thought the Minnesota Timberwolves came to play without passion or commitment tonight on the road against Charlotte, and he was spot-on. I wasn’t there to ask any of the players–and they wouldn’t tell me anyway–but I imagine they thought Wittman’s stubborn smallball strategy put them in a position to lose, if not outright embarrass themselves, and that might have had something to do with the half-assed effort. At the end of the night, the only mystery was how this wretched ballclub found itself with a chance to win the game on its last two possessions.
Let’s deal with Wittman and smallball first. I’ve stopped writing about it because it’s arrogant and boring to be a johnny one-note when you have no influence on the outcome and the team has lost 39 more games than it has won–it’s not like there aren’t any other foibles to point out. But on a game like tonight, when the small lineup was immediately and definitively proven to be disastrous choice of matchups, it probably serves a purpose to grab some of the nearby factual ammo to highlight the stupidity, and then remind folks that it really doesn’t *have* to be this way.
On Charlotte’s first two offensive possessions, center Nazr Mohammed fed an interior pass to power forward Emeka Okafor who shrugged off Ryan Gomes (if he noticed him at all) and laid the ball in. After the first time, color commentator Jim Petersen chuckled ruefully and said that Okafor would be a tough matchup for Gomes tonight. No kidding. Okafor is three inches taller than Gomes and much stronger in the upper body. He likes to score in the low block, mostly because he’s good at it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the lane, Mohammed was abusing Jefferson to the tune of 9 points in the first 5:40 of action.
The first time Charlotte scored off a jump shot, they already led 21-12, having scored 21 points in the paint in a cool 6:21, which works out to about 80 points in the paint per 48. Petersen, who is paid to be diplomatic, began calling for Chris Richard to join Jefferson and Gomes on the front line. Instead, Wittman subbed out his entire front line, bringing in Richard, Craig Smith and Kirk Snyder for Jefferson, Gomes and Brewer with the score 27-12 and 3:26 to go in the first quarter.
Randy Wittman is a hard guy to defend. Indeed, one could make the case that, even with personnel that has been mediocre to inferior in terms of overall talent, he has underachieved on that talent level pretty much every year he’s been the head coach in this league. I don’t know why he has continued to deploy Jefferson at center, but after 76 games and a couple weeks’ worth of steadily declining production, Jefferson finally said "uncle!" over the weekend and declared himself physically and mentally toasted. And how did he say he was going to prepare himself to play with more rigor next season? By losing weight. Now does that sound like a guy itching to remain in the pivot with the leviathans, or somebody sending a message that he’d like to go back to his natural power forward slot next year?
Now, I didn’t say Wittman was an impossible guy to defend, and if I’m going to club him for the smallball, I owe him a little context. Jefferson *has* come out relatively weak and unwilling to mix it up the past three first quarters. He could barely dribble straight countenancing doing his patented spin moves and dipsy doodles against Shaq and a rejuvenated Amare the other night, and laid an egg in the first 12 minutes against Memphis and Darko, of all people. Tonight it was passive D on Mohammed and an inclination to settle for 15-foot jumpers.
But Wittman hasn’t backed down. He called out Jefferson after the Memphis game and benched him alongside Gomes and Brewer. At halftime, Jefferson had gotten just four seconds more burn than Craig Smith, and less playing time than Gomes or Randy Foye. And for whatever reason Wittman did not play him for one second at power forward beside Chris Richard. Now do I think that’s stupid coaching? Yes, I do. But in Wittman’s defense it must be stated that Jefferson came out and destroyed Charlotte in the second half on offense, scoring 29 points on 12-13 FG and establishing himself as a horse that the Wolves’ rode to an amazing 68 points in the paint and 51.5% shooting for the game. The only shot he missed in the second half was a desperation jumper from the corner with .7 seconds left on the clock. It wasn’t like the team was running its offense through the guy who happened to register 40 points: 10 of his 18 field goals were unassisted, included 4 putbacks.
So if one buys the argument that Al Jefferson is really the only sure thing this franchise has to work with, than an argument can be made that Wittman is tempering him with fire and ice and everything in between, wearing his ass out in the paint against bigger and stronger personnel. I don’t know if this is true, but nothing else makes sense. And to the extent that Jefferson is gathering himself up and rising as best he can to the occasion–and 40 points is a pretty good response–the drill sargeant bit is working.
To continue along this track, Gomes is arguably the second best player currently on the roster and is also being fed a steady ration of pounding in the low block. Again, the only way this makes sense is to enhance Gomes’s toughness and durability over the long run. Personally, I’d argue he needs more time and seasoning at the small forward slot, learning how best to use his size and bulk out on the perimeter. Tonight, after Wittman did finally relent to the point of playing Smith at the power forward and Gomes at the 3 (prompting the Wolves’ comeback, not coincidentally), Gomes did some posting up of Jason Richardson, who, as a strong, athletic 6-6, probably isn’t used to defending it. Gomes customarily quietly had 24 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists tonight.
Of course neither the coach nor the players operate in a vacuum. Wittman is justified in castigating his players for coming out flat and essentially losing the game in the first five minutes. But his smallball very obviously lessened the odds of his team’s success, something the players know better than anyone. And as he cracks the whip on a 19-win team 77 games into the season, is he surprised that some, if not most, of the players are rebelling is ways both passive and aggressive? On the other hand, while the players are justified if they note the coach blew the matchups and don’t appreciate the demonstrative scenes he makes on the sidelines in response to their mistakes, they aren’t coming out ready to deliver a solid night’s work either. Bottom line there is plenty of blame to go around.
2. A Gold Star for Buckner, A Lump of Coal For McCants
Both Petersen and Strib beat writer Jerry Zgoda appropriately lauded little-used reserve Greg Buckner for his catalytic performance (PiPress writer Rick Alonzo was less effusive but didn’t neglect Buck). After not playing for a month, Buckner climbed off the bench and delivered a game-best plus +17 (six better than second-best performer Raymond Felton of Charlotte) in 31:05. Even watching on television, you could see that Buckner was operating at a higher gear than every one of his teammates, a scathing indictment of their effort that almost certainly raised their caliber of commitment. Along with his example, Buckner provided a rare semblance of defense (Charlotte shot 62.3%, led by a combined 23-29 FG from Okafor, Mohammed and shooting guard Matt Carroll), and nailed 3-4 treys and 5-9 FG overall. Amid all the gushing, however, the cavaet must be inserted that Buckner fell prey to his primary weakness–trying to do too much once he gets on a bit of a roll. In a game decided by just one or two possessions, it would have been nice to see him deemphasize his offensive contribution in shooting and dribbling. Ditto Ryan Gomes, who let fly with a trey from the corner
and another jumper that I’d really wished he’d pounded into Jefferson.
Rashad McCants was among those not ready to play tonight. With the Wolves down 9 after just 6:21, Wittman threw him in for Foye and it took Shaddy all of 12 seconds to dribble around two opponents out on the perimeter and jack up a trey. After that, his only smudge on the box score was for two silly fouls, the first catching Carroll on the follow-through to his missed jumper, the second simply crowding his man too much in the corner. Wittman sat him after that and never brought him back–he played a scoreless 3:11 and was a minus -8 during that brief period. After the game, according to the beat writers (again, I wasn’t there), Wittman said he didn’t bring Shaddy back due to a lack of professionalism and was quoted as saying that McCants knows what he did. For his part, McCants left the locker room before the media could reach him.
I’ve been accused of being both a McCants-lover and a McCants-hater and I plead guilty on both counts, and suspect Shaddy wouldn’t have it any other way. It is certainly possible McCants did something Wittman considers unprofessional, but it would frankly surprise me if it was heinous or malicious–until the situation gets explained further, there is no way to know.
What I do know is that Wittman and McCants mix like oil and water, for obvious reasons of temperament and personality. I also know that this is a situation engendered by the front office. When Kevin McHale selected McCants in the draft three years ago, he openly acknowledged that Shaddy had some baggage but that the Wolves, unlike at least a handful of other teams, believed his talent was worth the gamble. Then a year and a half ago, the same McHale tabbed Wittman to replace Dwane Casey because he felt the team needed a little discipline and a kick in the pants. So you gamble on the volatile McCants and then you hire a taskmaster coach and everything is supposed to go well?
I find it disappointing but not surprising that Wittman met with both Jefferson and Foye, but pointedly not McCants, the other day to talk about what is expected of them as future leaders of this team. In a comparison of Foye and McCants, I believe Foye is the more likely player to put together 6-8 solid seasons in the NBA, but that McCants has more star potential. True, he is a gamble, which is precisely why a team like the Wolves–who are looking at pretty formidable competition from Portland and Seattle in the next 5 years–need to cultivate him. I see the scowls and the ball-hogging and all the rest. I also know that McCants has produced as many important assists–synergistically creative ball-sharing–this season as Foye. Granted, Foye hasn’t played as much, but on the flip side, Foye is supposedly a point guard.
Yes, Foye has been felled by injury. But that doesn’t change the fact that, flat-out, McCants has been a better player than Foye on the Wolves thus far this season. Or that he is the team’s best perimeter scoring threat–it isn’t even close. Now, does that mean McCants is or should be superior to Foye on the pecking order of this ballclub? No, not necessarily. But consider that tonight in crunchtime, with the Wolves down three with 30 seconds to play, Foye bulled his way to the hoop and tossed up a too-strong airball layup that was fortunately rebounded by the Wolves and converted into a Jefferson bucket. Consider that with 12 seconds to play and the Wolves down one, Foye turned the ball over on a misguided feed to Jefferson–flashing it too strong and not realizing Jefferson had a bad vision angle because he was visually screened by the man guarding Foye. Consider that Foye continues to have difficulty stopping dribble penetration and has increasing difficulty executing his own dribble penetration because defenders properly seek to take away his right hand.
This is not to say that the Wolves should abandon Foye, who had a solid 19-6-7 and was plus +2 in over 40 minutes of action tonight. But it is to point out that his play does not suggest him to be a sure bet as a team leader. And to add that if he is regarded that way, to the point of publicly announcing meetings with just him and with a no-doubt leader like Jefferson, then somebody ought to consider that McCants would be offended. I don’t know if that was related to the recent spat or "unprofessional" behavior that Wittman views Shaddy as having committed. But if you are going to go buy a can of oil and a jug of water, don’t be surprised if they don’t mix–and think long and hard about which is more valuable or what else can be done to improve the situation.
3. Nice Guy Finishing Close To Last
Of all the players wishing the season would end, Corey Brewer is probably near the top of the list. After a brief stint of decent accuracy, Brewer has shot 3-13 FG over his past three games and increasingly seems to be melting on defense as well. Jason Richardson had about as much regard for his physical prowess as Okafor had for Gomes tonight. A year from now, Brewer needs to be in conversations about "most improved player." Right now he is hurting the club more often than not when he steps on the court. He hustled down floor on the fast break tonight and finger-rolled an airball. Just by watching him this season it is hard to imagine him as anyone other than a proud, hard-working professional who is used to being respected and rewarded for the results he creates. This must be a hellish spring for him.