The Three Pointer: 4th Quarter Blues

Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Game #54, Home Game #29: Dallas 99, Minnesota 83

Season Record: 11-43

1. Really Kidding

As someone who was contemptuous of how much the Dallas Mavericks gave up to secure Jason Kidd, let me sheepishly report that the clearcut MVP of tonight’s game was…Jason Kidd. Believe it or not, his line of 17 assists (versus 3 turnovers), 4 steals, 12 points and 7 rebounds doesn’t do him justice. The dimes were doled with numbing regularity (the period totals were 6-4-4-3), but the most memorable were in the second half, especially a pair to center Erick Dampier early in the third, both touch passes as Kidd was falling out of bounds getting a rebound and receiving a feed near the hoop, respectively. All Dampier had to do on both occasions was lay the ball in (in fact he was 4-4 FG and every hoop was gift-wrapped by Kidd on a silver platter). This helped push the Mavs to their first double-digit lead, one they eventually lost as the two ballclubs matched quarter scores for three straight periods–a tie at the end of every one.

With 5:10 to play in the 4th and Dallas up just 4, Kidd–who’d been penetrating and turning down makeable shots all night for the sake of ball movement–started sinking nails in the Wolves’ coffin. First was a driving layup that few, including Telfair, expected him to finish. Then a 20-foot jumper relatively early in the shot clock. Then a feed to a driving Jason Terry and, following a Nowitzki jumper and 1, a transition layup off a steal that yielded his own three point play. Just like that the lead was 14 with 2:41 to go, and after doling out a relatively pedestrian 17th assist to Josh Howard, #2 from Oaktown was done for the night. Ditto the Wolves.

Those of us who fancy ourselves "students of the game" will always marvel at how Kidd’s court vision makes basketball intelligence a thing of beauty, and cherish him because of it. But here’s the rub: The Kidd who performed tonight was a very different player than the Kidd manning the point for New Jersey earlier this month. That Kidd was indifferent to the point of laziness on defense, made the competent passes but not the ones that get teammates excited about moving without the ball, and comported himself like a man with a heavy burden. Ironically, that New Jersey team also sported Vince Carter, a player whose admitted tanking in Toronto so offended us "students of the game" because the beauty of his play was so raw and physical, the near opposite of Kidd’s cerebral gambits. But the evidence of our eyes in the way Kidd rejuvenated his game for Dallas tonight–with nearly a third of his 17 assists of the eye-popping sort, 4 steals, and a skipping gait that shows the burden lifted somehow–is that Kidd was tanking in Jersey perhaps no less than Vinsanity withheld himself in Toronto. So, does being "smarter" give Kidd immunity on being slacker?

2. Jefferson + 4 = -1

Al Jefferson is getting better in a hurry. He denied any difference in commitment and attitude when I asked him after the Spurs game if he’d rededicated himself to anything going forward from the All Star break, but elements of his game that do not affect his personal point total–passing and defense–have both noticeably sharpened. Whenever Jefferson has blown a defensive assignment in the past three games, he’s either slapped his chest or, if the play is quickly in transition, held up his finger as a sign of taking responsibility. He is much more aggressive about going for the block or the foul when opposing use dribble penetration. And his passing has helped foster some of the best ball movement the Wolves have executed this season.

Jefferson gives the Wolves something elemental–a big man constantly at threat to score in the low block. Yet an increasingly vexing problem as the season has progressed has been finding him a worthy partner, a relatively potent and consistent player who can score and dish on the perimeter to create space and synergize the offense. Unfortunately, the quartet of candidates being seriously auditioned thus far have varying degrees of skill in terms of commanding the floor and shooting the ball, ranging from the "pure" point Telfair to the point machine McCants, with Marko Jaric close to Telfair and Randy Foye closer to McCants in skill sets.

At the beginning of the year, Foye was the obvious choice, and remains the most likely to grab the role, if only by default thus far. Further complicating matters is that Foye is a combo guard just as Jefferson is a combo big man–the Wolves would like to see them grow into the point guard and pivot positions, when in fact they seem most at home at off-guard and power forward. Whatever you want to call him, Foye took a small step backward tonight, nailing but one of six shots and delivering a lone assist against two turnovers in 25:04. "He’s going through some ups and downs right now and has got to get his confidence back, which will help everything," Wittman said after the game.

But with just 28 games to go, the possibility grows that this is a "limbo" season for Foye, much as last year was for McCants; any judgements, pro or con, on what he can and can’t do are occluded by the injury. That’s almost worse than a definitive yes-or-no answer for a franchise that will have a very good pick and two high second-rounders in the draft.

When the Wolves got the pou pou platter for KG during the off season, Wittman specifically said the squad was looking for two or perhaps three or four of the glut of young’uns populating the team to emerge as potential stars. As expected, mission accomplished for Jefferson. On the winnowing out end of things, Gerald Green has left the premises. But anyone who can say with any confidence that they know how Telfair, Foye, McCants, Brewer and Gomes are going to turn out is kidding himself–not a good sign

I understand that this is hardly a startling insight for folks following the team, but tonight’s checkered play by the checkered players and the realization that the season is over in 8 weeks seems to throw it into sharper relief. Telfair continued his recent uptick in shooting accuracy but was frequently overmatched by Kidd’s length and rejuvenation. McCants poured in 17 points in 28:08 but continues to epitomize the "different drummer" cliche with a playing rhythm and inherent decision making that is silk for him but often off-kilter for his teammates. Jaric, a rare known commodity, shows why he could be an 8th or 9th man on a playoff contender by assembling one of his 7 point-6 rebound-5 assist games with a little disruptive D thrown in for good measure. And Craig Smith, who was absolutely blistered by Dirk Nowitzski in an obvious mismatch situation earlier in the season, defended Dirk as well as anybody on the team this time out and had me biting my tongue on the lack of Ratliff-Jefferson tandem play that’s occurred since Theo’s return.

Wittman felt the game turned sour when his team held Dallas without points for seven straight possessions but couldn’t convert themselves. Not surprisingly, Jefferson wasn’t on the floor at the time. Wittman also correctly explained that the difference between the Wolves who shot 71% in the second quarter (to be 59% at the half) and the Wolves who shot 26% in the fourth quarter was aggression, not settling for jumpers, and moving the ball. Not incidentally, Jefferson was 4-4 FG in the second period, 0-3 FG in the final stanza, and mightily pissed over his lack of touches and the team’s inability to score without him. "We lost our composure with each other a little bit and got frustrated," Wittman conceded. No feuds, and nothing specific, just general angst.

Telfair, Jaric, Foye, and McCants. Is there is a legit partner in that crew for Big
Al? The longer there is no definite answer, the answer is no.

3. Smallball Update

Wittman explained that he doesn’t want to bring Ratliff back too quickly against smaller lineups, so he played sparingly alongside Jefferson at the end of the first and third quarters. Okay, but why bring back Chris Richard if he isn’t going to get any burn? And why does the coach enjoy smallball with this personnel so often? Despite shooting a higher percentage than Dallas (49.4% to 45%), the Wolves were outrebounded 43-35 and got to the line only a third as often as the Mavs, 9 to 27 FTA. Jefferson’s FT totals in the three Dallas games have steadily declined, from 14 to 8 to 4. Does Kevin McHale want only one smashmouth big man barging around?