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Game #43, Home Game #20: New Jersey 95, Minnesota 98
Season record: 8-35
1. Carried By Jefferson
For three quarters tonight, the Timberwolves were more of a one-man team than in any competitive game they have played this season. Al Jefferson had 33 points, more than half of the Wolves’ team total of 64. Rashad McCants was the only other Timberwolf in double figures, with 13, Jefferson had 13 rebounds, nearly half the team’s 27, with Ryan Gomes second with 4. Jefferson had gone to the free throw line a dozen times, making 9. No one else on the team had visited the charity stripe.
Yet heading into that fourth quarter, Minnesota was down by double-digits, 74-64. Jefferson was obviously dominant; just as obviously, productive complements were hard to come by.
In that final, game-changing period, however, the Wolves’ reared up and outscored New Jersey 34-21 to steal this game. What’s more, the theft was legit–this was the fifth straight quality game for Randy Wittman’s ballclub, and the Nets came into the Target Center already having lost eight in a row. Minnesota claimed this W the "right" way: With grit and ingenuity, and confidence, the ingredients of character and resilience. A new dynamic took hold: Jefferson scored only 7 of those 34 points, and made only 1 of the 8 field goals of that period. After scoring 31 points in the game’s first 36 minutes, the non-Jeffersons racked up 27 in the final 12.
We’ll get to those vital contributions in a moment. This first point appropriately belongs to Jefferson. Five times tonight Big Al muscled the ball through the hoop while being fouled in the paint. Every single time he nailed the free throw to complete the three-point play. Only four of his 13 baskets were jumpers; two were tip-ins and 7 were lay-ups. A whopping 19 of his career high (and Wolves’ season high) 40 points were a direct result of his 8 offensive rebounds. In other words, on his on, Jefferson registered five treys and 19 second-chance points.
True to form, he started badly on defense. His failure to box out led to an easy Richard Jefferson putback, then good-looking rookie Sean Williams slammed home a pair of dunks in which Big Al was a step slow. Teammate Rashad McCants picked up his second foul and went to the bench just 2:37 into the game covering up what appeared to be another blown Jefferson assignment.
But even here, Jefferson’s game showed steady improvement. It helped that Williams, while incredibly talented, is still raw; that Josh Boone boasts the skills of a certified journeyman; and that Jason Collins doesn’t look to shoot. Nevertheless, Jefferson became increasingly active as the game went along, both is bodying up his man down low, rotating over in the paint, and deterring penetration (his pick and roll defense is still suspect). Throw in a couple of blocks, a steal and three big assists, and you’ve got an all-star caliber performance. They haven’t been as frequent as Wolves’ boosters claim, which is all the more reason to celebrate the ones that do occur.
2. Anatomy Of A Comeback
One of the key turning points in this game actually occurred just four minutes into the second half. Tired of watching McCants get roasted by New Jersey’s Richard Jefferson, Wittman used the occasion of Marko Jaric’s fourth foul to go with a larger lineup, subbing in Craig Smith for Jaric, a move that slid Ryan Gomes down to small forward to guard Jefferson and McCants down to shooting guard to cover Vince Carter. At the time, Richard Jefferson had 27 points in 18 minutes of action, including 10-14 FG. He scored just a single point (0-3FG, 1-2FT) the rest of the third quarter. Gomes’s entire third quarter line looks like this: one foul in 10:28. And yet he was plus +4, devoting himself to shutting down New Jersey’s biggest threat. The ability of the Wolves to negate one Jefferson while the Nets couldn’t negate another Jefferson played a centra role in this comeback.
Meanwhile, freed of getting schooled by Jefferson and with Vince Carter now guarding him, McCants immediately erupted for 7 points in the first 1:27 after Wittman changed the lineup. The Wolves hacked a double-digit deficit down to 2 with 4:30 left to go in the third before Jason Kidd temporarily filled the void left by Richard Jefferson being shut down, nailing three treys in the next 2:44 (nearly the entire amount of his 11 point game) to boost the lead back to ten heading into the final quarter.
No matter: The tone had been set. Jefferson went 1-8 FG for the game after Wittman went big. And on offense, the kamikaze 34 point final period was sparked by a pair of differently-styled swingmen, Corey Brewer and Gerald Green. I have ripped on the latter more than a little, but with the possible exception of the Indiana game, this is the best he’s looked in terms of his all-around contribution to a victory thus far this year. You expect two treys every now and then from the offensively volatile GG. The bonus here was a pair of steals from someone who has been a perpetually befuddled defender, not to mention some tenacious on-ball coverage of both Jefferson and Carter. Wittman often goes to a zone to protect against Green’s lapses on D. But when Gomes came in for GG with 5:04 to play, Green’s performance at both ends of the court had helped whittle a 13-point deficit down to 6 in less than six minutes’ time.
Brewer likewise had something to do with that surge, while delivering his second impressive game in a row–especially in the 4th quarter. The comparison to last year’s top draft pick–"4th quarter Foye"–is apt in that, even in light of his disastrous 5-second out of bounds violation against Boston, Brewer is not rattled by crunchtime pressure. On the contrary: Like Foye, playing in a tight game down the homestretch seems to trigger confident memories of his successful college program, and his leadership role in it. Playing against a squad renowned for a lightning-quick trio now past their primes–Jefferson-Kidd-Carter–Brewer simply outhustled everyone on the floor; snatching offensive rebounds and twice flying down the court in transition fast enough that New Jersey had no choice but to foul him. On a night when Vince Carter frequently burned him on high pick-and-roll jumpers, it was Brewer’s offense that redeemed him, specifically three offensive rebounds and 6-6 FT that gave him a team-high 8 points in the final period. He also led the way in terms of raw passion, thrusting his fist out in triumph after getting fouled or when rugged scrums he helped initiate enabled the Wolves to secure another possession on the ball going out of bounds.
Yet despite the heroics of Green and Brewer, the Wolves were still down 7 with 1:19 to play. *This* is where the character showed, where a callow team finally gelling after nearly three solid months of embarrassing ineptitude snatched the game from a group of desultory vets who weren’t very determined to halt their long losing streak.
McCants hit his 4th trey of the game from the left side of the arc, making it 95-91 with 1:15 to go. Then something remarkable happened: Jason Kidd made a stupid decision. After Richard Jefferson had cooled off, the Nets’ bread-and-butter offense in the second half had been the high pick and roll with Kidd, dishing to Carter who would work the play with a big man. Needing just another bucket to likely seal the win, the Nets logically looked to be setting up the same play as Kidd dribbled to his right. But suddenly Kidd reversed field away from the pick and roll confluence and zipped a pass beneath the hoop to the relatively open center Jason Collins. But Collins wasn’t so open that he couldn’t be fouled by Al Jefferson, which is exactly what happened. And coming into the game, Collins had converted just
10 of 30 free throws–he was the Wolves’ equivalent of Mad Dog Madsen. Not too surprisingly, he bricked both free throws with 56 seconds left to play.
On the ensuring play, Sebastian Telfair kept his cool, refused to pick up his dribble against pressure, and found an open Gomes standing in the corner. Gomes, who had shot a putrid 9-41 from outside the arc over his past 16 games, let it fly….swish. It was now 95-94 with 40 seconds to go. Vince Carter then clanks a too-long jumper on a stilted possession for New Jersey and the Wolves rebound with 21 seconds to go. Witt calls timeout and inserts McCants in for Brewer as part of the offensive-defensive platoon he’s running between the two as much as circumstances permit. Shaddy decides he’ll be the man, but his jumper is a tad long time–only to be corralled off the carom by Al Jefferson–remember him?–he gets fouled before he has a chance to go back up. In the classic crunchtime free throw situation–down 1, two shots, 11 seconds to play–Jefferson doesn’t flinch, sinking his 18th and 19th second chance points of the game to put the Wolves in the lead for the first time since the first 90 seconds of the game.
Last gasp for New Jersey. Richard Jefferson gets position but his six-foot jumper on the baseline hits the front iron and doesn’t creep over. Al Jefferson grabs his 19th rebound of the game, the Nets foul and Al cinches it with two more free throws to register his first-ever 40 point game.
3. Cause For Optimism
Foye and Ratliff are on the mend. Brewer, Jefferson and Telfair are all playing with enormous confidence. After a home-and-home with the underachieving Bulls (I’ll do my next trey on both of them together on Thursday), the Wolves play nine of the next ten games at home.