The Three Pointer: Best Beats Worst By One

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game #42, Road Game #23: Minnesota 86, Boston 87

Season record: 7-35

1. KG In A Nutshell

During the twelve years Kevin Garnett spent with the Timberwolves, a debate steadily escalated over his true value and place in the annals of the all-time great NBA players. KG supporters could point to his unprecedented versatility, his unbelievable endurance, his unyielding work ethic, and his infectious competitive spirit. Critics carped that there was a level of greatness to which KG’s character and temperament could not ascend: The ability to put a team on his back and deliver the goods when it mattered most; the seizing of the onus that he would be The Man when a Man was required.

Garnett boosters point to the longest consecutive streak of at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists–7 years, nearly all of them buttressed by KG’s place on the league’s all-defensive team. His detractors would point to one measly year in which the Wolves made it past the first round of the playoffs, and three straight years in the prime of his career when his squad didn’t even make the postseason.

Most Wolves fans are intimately familiar with the debate, which prompts eye-opening claims on both sides. Detractors like to say that Garnett is merely a great sidekick, that he needs a more dominant personality on the team in order to be truly effective, a Pippen to someone else’s Jordan. Strib writer Jim Souhan and KFAN jock Dan Barreiro have both voiced this view, with Souhan recently dubbing Garnett the "world’s greatest complementary player." By contrast, Celtics’ color commentator Cedric Cornbread Maxwell was the latest to big-up Garnett by naming him the second best player in Celtics history, behind only Bill Russell and ahead of Larry Bird, among others. Maxwell didn’t flinch from the predictable outcry, saying that KG’s huge edge on defense tipped the scales in his favor.

As one who is closer to Maxwell’s view than Barreiro’s and Souhan’s–I have actually taken the Garnett position in KG vs. Bird debates, although I go back and forth on who I think is a better player–it was a sincere pleasure watching the greatest Timberwolf there likely will ever be in my lifetime going against the Timberwolves when it counts (meaning a non-exhibition game) for the first time in his career last night. And it was a curiously nostalgic feeling to be marveling in his myriad gifts on the court and then being compelled to remember again his "flaw of unselfishness" that is necessarily part and parcel of his many virtues.

101 seconds into the game, when KG vanquished a triple-team near the corner baseline by feeding to his point guard Rajon Rondo for an easy layup, I realized how very little that has occurred on the Wolves this season, and how deeply ensconced such a play was in the DNA of any Wolves fan who watched the team in the KG era. Ditto when Garnett sealed off penetration with his interior rotation and his help with teammate Kendrick Perkins guarding Al Jefferson.

But after going 4-4 FG and registering a game-best plus +7 to lead the Celts to a three point halftime lead, Garnett stubbornly continued to take only what the Wolves’ D gave him in the second half. Now that he’s surrounded with the highest caliber teammates of his 13 years in the league, KG is even more inclined to trust his teammates with the open look–something Wolves’ fans always admired and cursed during his stint in Minnesota. If four shots in 16:29 seems like injurious modesty for a 7-1 gazelle being guarded by Al Jefferson and/or Ryan Gomes, consider that Garnett deigned to offer up exactly one shot in 14:35 of second half action, with Antoine Walker as one of the prime defenders.

Yes, the Wolves (obviously wisely) chose to constantly at least double and often triple team him. But how many bricks does Ray Allen have to toss before you realize it just isn’t his night? For all you folks who watched the game–how many times to KG dish out to the perimeter to an open Ray Allen; five? Six? Eight? Do you know how many times Garnett assisted on an Allen bucket? Zero. Allen going 1-9 FG in the first half should have been a clue. Then 1-4 FG in the third quarter. Then he got "hot" and went 2-5 FG in the final period. That’s 4-18, with five turnovers to boot.

Meanwhile, after doing a marvelous job of breaking down the Wolves with dribble penetration in the first half–he was 1-5 FG but had 6 dimes and 4-4 FT in 20:06–Paul Pierce had a surprisingly difficult time with Corey Brewer’s length and quickness and the Wolves’ alternation of zone and deftly rotating man-to-man. Pierce clearly remained a thorn for the Wolves–he finished with 19 points, 9 boards and 8 assists–he Minnesota made him earn it, sending him to the line 10 times (he made them all) and forcing him into a 4-18 FG night with a half dozen turnovers.

So, to recap: The smaller two of the Big Three for the Celts combined for 8-33 from the field with 11 turnovers. The current favorite to win the NBA MVP was 4-5 FG with 2 turnovers that weren’t his fault. The faithful in Boston are generally smart hoops observers, and probably appreciated how Garnett’s defense quieted Gomes in the first half (5 points and 2 rebouns for someone averaging 16 and 7 for the past few weeks) and helped quiet Jefferson in the second (6 points and 3 rebounds for the 20-12 Big Al; by contrast, Craig Smith had 4 points and a team-high 10 rebounds playing 13:22 of his 14:20 with KG on the bench). Even so, if you’re a diehard Celtic fan, you’re screaming for KG to get the ball and then do something with it in the direction of the hoop. You’re like Doc Rivers, who went bananas on Tony Allen after Allen chose to drive the lane and *then* dish to KG, resulting in a three-second call (the first of Garnett’s two turnovers) rather than immediately feeding an open KG on the low block. Allen, a third year pro currently averaging 6.0 ppg., had as many shots in the 4th quarter as Garnett took the entire game. The problem is that Doc had to speak for KG, who needed to pull a Keyshawn Johnson–as in "somebody get me the damn ball!"–long before then.

But then it’s crunchtime and many of the attributes that make Garnett a player for the ages come to the fore. After staggering to the sidelines with an "abdominal strain" (replays seemed to indicate that Brewer inadvertantly punched him in the nuts trying to strip him on a drive to the hoop, creating a pain intense enough for Garnett to immediately drop the basketball, which was his second turnover), Garnett went to the dressing room for four minutes of play in the latter stages of the fourth quarter. His trainer advised him not to play again that night. But Garnett talked his way back into the lineup. Amazing ability to surmount all manner of injuries? Check. Which segues into the Celts’ last basket: KG sets the pick that frees Ray Allen for an open layup which Allen promptly blows, but the Wolves are so concerned with Allen-Pierce-KG that Perkins has an easy weakside putback. Faithfully doing the little things that don’t show up on the box score but help the team? Check. Which segues into the final play of the game. KG, the seven-footer, ranges out to the perimeter beyond the three point arc and uses what Flip Saunders calls his Inspector Gadget arms to steal the ball from Sebastian Telfair, diving on the floor with Telfair to push the ball ahead toward the other end of the court as the buzzer sounds, sealing Boston’s one-point win. Freakish athletic versatility and extra hustle in service of defense? Check.

Which segues into something that is foreign territory for Wolves fans, even when KG was here. Team has a serious chance of contending for the NBA championship? Check.

2. What About The Wolves?

They played thei
r fourth solid game in a row. After the Celtics burned them with a flurry of points in the paint early, they played good-to-great defense in the second half, perhaps their best defensive effort of the season. The bench was especially important here, with Brewer regaining that controlled intensity on defense that has been only sporadic in recent weeks (and don’t overlook the continued accuracy of his much-maligned jumper–he went 4-8 FG tonight), and Walker ball-hawking superbly as well as giving KG a variety of different looks, occasionally fronting him and at other times fighting him for postion. Yes, they concentrated on not letting Garnett, and then Pierce, beat them, and if Ray Allen could have hit the broad side of a barn, that strategy could have easily looked foolish, or soon abandoned. As it was, Perkins was free to cut in from the baseline most any time he chose, which is why he went 8-10 FG with a game-high 21 points. But that’s why the Celts own the NBA’s best record–they have a load of offensive weapons and are playing stout team defense.

Most nights a game like Brewer’s would have qualified as the most pleasant surprise, but Top Kudo of this tilt has to be Bassy Telfair’s team-MVP performance. Not only did Telfair face up to Boston’s pressure defense–his counterpart Rondo is a superb defender–with six assists versus three turnovers, but he was the most confident Timberwolf on the floor during the 4th quarter, one of the rare occasions that can be said about a Minnesota point guard this year. Knowing him well from his stint here last year, Boston dared him to shoot and so Bassy did–7-14 FG, including 3-7 in a throat-squeezing final period–while playing the entire second half. Along with his team-high 18 points he chipped in 3 steals (Walker had 4, and the Wolves as a team filched a remarkable 13). But most significant was his demeanor. This was a player determined to live up to that cliche of the guy returning home to show his former team they had made a mistake giving up on him. Mission accomplished.

Some final quick hits about the Wolves this night:

Great to be reminded that Corey Brewer has a killer instinct. When the Wolves were making their run and forcing the Celts into 6 straight turnovers at one point, you could just see Brewer pouncing on the perceived vulnerability, upping his aggressiveness and looking to do something very proactive at both ends of the court, be it a steal, a daring assist, or a jumper with a flourish. He and Telfair were fearless, trying to dance on a grave in crunchtime. It augured well for the rook’s future.

For the second straight game, Craig Smith had trouble getting his shot to drop but worked hard on the glass, pulling in ten rebounds. There is no place for Smith in the team’s starting lineup, nor should there be. But in the right situations he can be a valuable reserve on a good team.

Got to hand it to Gerald Green, who, inserted into the game for the first time in nearly two weeks in the final seconds of the first period, went on one of his little mini-explosions in the second quarter, with 8 quick points. He also played what for him was very good defense (and what for others would be very inconsistent) and obviously seemed happy to be back on a court where he had plenty of opportunity to shine last season. I understand this is condescending, but I can’t help but liken Green being in the game to a child holding a gun with a robber in the house: His family knows somebody is going to get hurt and they just hope they buck the odds and it turns out to be the other guy.

3. The Unpleasant Shilling of Hanny and Pete

I have great respect for Wolves announcers Tom Hanneman and Jim Petersen, and when you get the NBA League Pass (it has been free all this week on cable, in an effort to sell the half-season remaining for $99) you hear commentators working games for other teams who usually aren’t up to their standard, particularly in analyzing the game and refraining from blatant homerism.

But last night was a sorry exception for Hanny and Pete and made the game practically unlistenable. The first problem was when Petersen went out of his way to justify the KG deal as having been a shrewd trade. Now I endorsed the trade at the time it was made, and still think the deal was one Minnesota had to make, given all the financial and attitudinal circumstances involved. But methinks Pete doth protest too much about how Minnesota didn’t get screwed. To do that, he absolutely lionized Al Jefferson, who obviously was the key to the deal, along with the draft picks, for the Wolves. I like Al Jefferson, quite a bit in fact, all things being equal. But when Pete brings up only to downplay the Lakers’ offer of Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom and others, in order to continue praising Jefferson by comparison, it begins to sound fishy. Raving about how Jefferson is such a great low-post scorer at the age of 22 (he forgets Jeff turned 23 on January 4), Pete conveniently omits that Bynum won’t turn 21 until October, averages more rebounds per 48 minutes than Big Al, is two inches taller than Big Al, is already a better defender than Big Al, is shooting 63.6% from the field and averaging more than 13 points per game in less than 29 minutes of action. And gave Jefferson fits in their head-to-head matchups this season.

I’m not saying Bynum is better than Jefferson; only that it will be an intriguing thing to track as they both mature over the next five or six years. And, more to the point, the same *must* be said about the Garnett deal. Minnesota could very well look very smart round about 2010–or look like fools. As I say, relative to other superstar trades, I think McHale and Minnesota came out pretty well, at least on paper, compared to what, say, Philly got for Iverson.

But let’s get a little perspective. Boston came into this game with the best record in the NBA–and undefeated against the generally tougher Western Conference (and yes, I know they haven’t played the West’s cream of the crop). Minnesota came into this game with the worst record in the NBA. This is *not* the time to be thumping your chest about how well the Wolves did in that transaction. Petersen can be prone to overselling the Wolves, but generally he stays on firmer ground than this.

Having invested themselves in praising the blockbuster deal that had so many of the players on the court staring at the uniforms they so recently wore, Hanny and Pete began to root for the Wolves as nakedly as I can ever remember, and it really hurt the quality of their announcing. Petersen moaned about a no-call on Jefferson (hardly the first of the evening–the refs pretty much let them play) but didn’t bat an eye that there was no call on the play that sent KG to the sidelines and prompted a turnover just a few minutes before then. He openly wondered if the five-second call on Corey Brewer–a devastating crunchtime turnover–was a quick count by the ref until the replay demolished that little conspiracy theory.

Meanwhile, Hanny offered up a series of whoppers. Two of my "favorites," in stiff competition, was first his claim in the 4th quarter that "Garnett has not been a big factor. Al Jefferson has been a big factor;" then, sailing into a commercial, the statement that if the Wolves were to prevail it would be "One of the biggest wins in franchise history." To state the obvious, KG was a big factor in the Celtics win–he already had one of those double-doubles Hanny used to rave about when Garnett played for the Wolves (he finished the game with 16 rebounds), and was a defensive force the entire night. And unless Al Jefferson went off for 82 points on 29-53 FG and 24-33 FT or something, any game that would "up" Minnesota’s record to 8-34 is not, in the grand scheme of things, memorable to any franchise–even the Timberwolves.

I expect sanity will be restored during the next telecast.