The Three Pointer: A Big Easy

Road Game #5: Minnesota 103, New Orleans 94

Season record: 2-10

1. Revolt of the Back-Up Point Guards

While would-be Wolves cornerstones Al Jefferson, Rashad McCants and Ryan Gomes had performances ranging from disappointing to dreadful, the squad bagged its first road win primarily on the strength of the inexplicably calm, capable, and confident duo of Marko Jaric and Sebastian Telfair. For the third straight game, Jaric went to the hole with authority (a moderate surprise), supplemented it with an accurate outside J (a large surprise) and consistently well-considered decision-making (huge surprise). It was his best performance in a Timberwolves uniform.

Telfair likewise delivered a performance out of the ether, playing better defense on Chris Paul than Paul’s numbers (31 points, 11 assists) might suggest; exercising excellent shot selection (the biggest surprise of all), putting pace into the game without losing the handle, and sinking his free throws in crunch time to ensure that the wire-to-wire Wolves lead never got too precarious. For the night, Jaric shot 8-12 FG and Telfair was 6-9 FG. Jaric had 6 assists, 3 turnovers and 2 steals; Telfair dropped 8 dimes versus 2 miscues and added a steal. In 38:41, Jaric was plus +9 in a 9-point win; in 36:40, Telfair was plus +13.

The key stat there is the respective minutes: Jaric and Telfair spent a lot of time together on the court, ranking first and second on the team in court time. Because they are players of complementary strengths, there was logical potential for synergy, but I also think there is something to be said for a couple of back-up point guards thriving by sharing the point guard responsibilities. That Marko didn’t have to guard Paul all night did wonders for his confidence and gave him just enough durability to contribute some (but not nearly as much as the first three quarters) down the stretch. That Jaric is a capable ballhandler who was both burying his J and getting productivity in the paint relieved Bassy of the responsibility of always making something happen and let him settle into more of a natural, "take what they give me" rhythm. For him too, it was his best performance in a Timberwolves (and probably NBA) uniform.

Unfortunately, it should also be noted that Jaric and Telfair both benefitted from not having to play next to McCants much of the time. The ball movement and general flow of the offense was palpably enhanced when McCants was on the sidelines, unable to hoist shots out of rhythm, commit foolish fouls that retarded the sprightly pace, and look to beat his man either off the dribble or with a sudden jumper, both unsuccessful. Shaddy was 3-9 FG with one assist, two turnovers and 4 fouls in 21:38, during which time the Wolves were minus -2.

But the biggest goat of the game for the Wolves was Gomes, whose sour play has gone from temporary mystery to odd dilemma to legitimate concern. He started well with a solid couple of games, resurrected himself a bit in the Cleveland loss and has returned to the tank. He remains a shrewd player in many facets of the game. He knows how to move without the ball and get open, for example, but there isn’t a player on this team who has missed more wide open looks thus far this season. After shooting 48.7% and 46.7% his first two years, he is currently at 38.9%. It’s not because he’s shooting more treys either–his long range percentage is over 40 and comprising an increasing slice of his total shots–not a good sign for someone 6-8, 250. But the real bugaboo tonight was turnovers: He had 5, versus one assist, in just 17:37, which is why he registered a whopping minus -11, meaning the squad was plus +20 in the 30 minutes he sat.

The third of the misplaced cornerstones tonight was Big Al, who was much more productive and conducive to the positive outcome than either Gomes or McCants, but hardly the bedrock commensurate with his talent and contract. Against Atlanta the other night, Jefferson began the night with 18 points on 6-6 FG in the first half and then went 2-7 FG in the second half. Tonight it was 4-6 FG in the first half, with a resounding slam dunk and a nice dish to McCants right out of the gate, and then another 2-7 FG in the second half, beginning with a missed bunny in the paint, a blown crunchtime slam after a gorgeous bounce pass feed from Jaric on a pick and roll (he claimed he was fouled), and a crunchtime bailout on another bunny right in front of the hoop where Tyson Chandler was whistled for the foul (and may indeed have brushed the elbow on the followthrough), but Jeff was hardly going strong to the hoop on the play. The point is, Jefferson was supposed to be the beast in the paint that rendered 4th quarter scoring reliable and we’re seeing less evidence that he can overcome defenses designed to take that away. By the way, he missed those two free throws after the Chandler foul, at a time when the Hornets were mounting a serious comeback, and was a minus -6 on the evening in 32:13 of play. That means the Wolves were plus +15 in the 15:47 he sat.

I love Al Jefferson’s game. Just not quite as much as I did a week or so ago.

2. Davis for Walker: A Minnesota Steal

When the trade with Miami came down just before the season started, it was easy to look at it in terms of Antoine Walker and Mark Blount, in that in order for us to accept ‘Toine’s bloated contract, the Heat had to cart away Blount’s absurd deal, and his carcass besides. But as the season has progressed, it has become plain that the swap in reality has ‘Toine providing more than a few of the things RD used to bring, but with just a fraction of the corrosive bullshit and yo-yo inconsistency.

When Walker, Jaric and Telfair were on the court at the same time tonight, the Wolves produced by far their prettiest offense of the season thus far. The ball zipped around and yet all three players performed with the confident knowledge that they could take their man off the dribble if things bogged down. But even more than Jaric or Telfair, Walker has the experience and the wisdom to enable his teammates. You can tell he’s enmeshed in a fairly constant internal war over whether to try and take the game over himself (an impulse he resists more effectively than McCants but still succumbs to a fair bit) or not, but I love that he often resolves it by massaging his ego with the notion that he’s the daddy mentor out there, showing the young’uns how to share the ball, spice up the pace, and, above all, compete. The trimphant bellow and fist wave he gave when he drove baseline on the behemoth Chandler, missed the layup short but immediately went back up for a successful tip-in, spoke volumes. ‘Toine knew, and Jim Petersen correctly identified, that it was the pivotal play of crunchtime, enlarging the lead to 9 with just a few minutes to go rather than watching it shrink to two possessions with another unanswered Hornet basket. After the Saturday night choke, that would have been a hairy prospect.

And you could see it again, in the half-second the camera caught his disgusted grimace when Jefferson missed the two free throws–Antoine Walker is busting his ass. The guy who played a key role on an NBA championship team just 18 months ago and was feted in glitzy South Beach for his efforts. The guy who then got traded as nothing more than a contract equalizer to a woefully inexperienced club picked to finish last in its conference while playing up in the freezing tundra. He’s been something of an all purpose glue guy (with occasional dashes of mustard, relish and catnip, of course). If you can’t appreciate the context and the content of his contribution, you’re either way too cynical or not paying attention. Tonight he had 17 points, 5 rebounds, an assist, two steals and zero turnovers in 30:28, finishing with a plus +11.

3. More Kudos

Speaking of fabulous glue guys, how about Greg Buckner thriving under the radar tonight? In 29:25, he garnered a team-high 9 rebounds, doled out 6 assists, and w
as a game-high plus +18. It brought back memories of Buck’s very strong opening week for this team. What I most remember is him laying a body on Melo Anthony and working him over like his elbows and knees were rubber hoses. Tonight, Peja Stojakovic got similar treatment. Put simply, the other aspects of Buckner’s game seem to elevate a notch when his defensive assignment calls for a good physical scrap. That’s not a bad attribute to have on your bench.

Tonight was also a reprise of the vintage Craig Smith, the guy who mud wrestled in the paint for offensive rebounds and improbably fluttery putbacks, committed smart fouls and played pick and rolls like Rhino Astaire. (You get the sense that the Wolves had solid bench play?)

Finally, after numerous telecasts compelling him to paint lipstick (and the rare irreverent mustache) on porcine performances, Wolves’ color commentator Jim Petersen was given a relative embarrassment of riches to detail and not surprisingly nailed nearly every one. Only Buckner’s stealth performance improperly escaped adornment by Jim Pete’s satchel of gold stars. He was lightning quick pointing out the synergy of Jaric and Telfair together, correctly identified the unsung value of Madsen’s defense and communications skills, and, perhaps his best insight, lauded the Wolves’ vastly improved pick and roll defense. Getting a rare quality performance from this diaper squad ballclub is by itself a pleasant surprise. Receiving astute analysis as it happens is gravy that further enriches the experience.