The Three Pointer: The Best Yet This Season

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Game #55, Home Game #30: Utah 100, Minnesota 111

Season Record: 12-43

1. The Beauty of Teamwork

It’s been a long time–certainly a year, maybe two–since fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves have seen this kind of 48 minutes from their ballclub. There have been some really nice wins thus far this season: The roaring final 3 quarters that produced the 131 points versus Indiana, the two convincing wins over Phoenix, and the solid rousting of Philly just last week. And there have been enjoyably well-played losses to Boston (the one on the road), Atlanta (the one on the road), and San Antonio (last week). But Indiana and Philly are sub-mediocrities, the style Phoenix plays is prone to their occasional pratfalls, and the losses were ultimately losses, after all.

Tonight the Wolves beat a very good team–19-4 in 2008 heading into this game–by mixing aggression and sound judgment, tenacity and tact, and, above all, a full-fledged sense of selflessness for the sake of the ballclub. Such teamwork is harder to describe than witness–it’s always easier to isolate what’s wrong with a car than why it works so well from ignition to muffler–but worth the effort if only to savor it. There are all the little things. Randy Foye jumping right in the middle of the paint to set a pick for Al Jefferson. Rashad McCants diving toward the hoop wide open and not receiving the pass, yet diligently circling back out to probe for other ways he can extend the play. Ryan Gomes rotating over to deter penetration and cover for his late-arriving teammate, then sliding to the other side of the lane to box out his own man after the shot goes up. Corey Brewer scrambling to the sideline and backhanding the ball in to save the possession, then getting back in time to tip in the subsequent shot less than two seconds later. Foye scrambling back hard enough in transition to be able to set his feet for a charge.

Utah is a physical team, charter members of the Frequent Foulers Club, expert in rubbing out obstacles with back-door picks and other traffic-jamming Xs and Os designed to sap your spirit and bruise your muscles. They wait to seize the lapses that are the byproduct of fatigue. But the Wolves beat Utah at their own game. Wittman threw new man Kirk Snyder on Utah enforcer Matt Harpring and Snyder, who practiced against Harpring often his rookie year after being drafted by Utah, went shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe and more than once joined him on the floor in their mutual mania for the round orb. Theo Ratliff took the measure of another bench bruiser for the Jazz, Paul Milsapp, and, although it required 5 fouls in 12:31, helped flummox the second year player. By the third and early in the fourth period, many Utah shots were banging front iron.

Muckers like Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes mucked, but so did Foye and McCants and Telfair, and Big Al. They gave little away for free to Utah, staying with their men by wedging themselves over picks or switching off smartly, alert to the entire court, vertical and horizontal, the breakaways and the back-door cuts. They kept their heads on a swivel and their hands up for deflections, grabbing 16 steals (one short of the franchise record) and disrupting at least that many other possessions. Utah did not execute poorly–the Jazz shot 46.4% and had 26 assists–but the Wolves also forced them into a season-high 24 turnovers. Three Wolves–Jefferson/Foye/McCants–had three steals and Telfair and Gomes had two.

The offense was even more fun to watch. It brimmed with minor decisions that made already good possibilities just a little bit better. Telfair led the team with just 4 assists, and two big men off the bench, Smith and the newcomer Snyder had 3. McCants would have an open look for his jumper but see Jefferson sealing his man and already anticipating the double team, so he’d dump in the entry pass, watch Jefferson spin one-on-three into the lane and draw the foul. McCants gets the glow of feeling unselfish; Al the gusto of barging into the teeth of Sloan’s boys in the paint, a Jazz player is that much closer to foul trouble and Jefferson nails the free throws (he was 8-10 FT overall). Another time down, Jefferson has the ball and is crab-dribbling into the double until he push-passes a final dribble into the hands of McCants, swinging over five feet behind him and getting his feet in position, even as Jefferson becomes the de facto screen on his two men and the other McCants has just rubbed off him. Shaddy nails the open look (8-17 FG), Jefferson drops an easy dime (one of two tonight) and Utah knows there are legit threats being wielded at either end of this two-man game.

Except that it’s a five man game. The three-headed monster Wolves fans have been pining for–Jefferson, McCants and Foye–all take their closeups, damn well linger in it, maybe for two or three possessions in a row if the matchups are right, abetted by the other four teammates in the little ways described above. But then, for one of the few times this year, the emphasis moves before it has to. Foye’s hot, but cedes to Shaddy, or Al, who goes and gets some, but doesn’t mark the territory for pecking order purposes. In the first half, Foye has 9 shots, Jefferson 7, McCants 8; for the game Foye has 16 shots, McCants 17, Jefferson 17. Jefferson and McCants tie for the scoring lead with 22, Foye a whisker behind at 20.

And 20 from Ryan Gomes makes it only the second time in the last 10 years, and the first time since January 2004, that four Wolves go off for 20 points or more. Gomes, of course, is different. He is the best individual barometer for this team, because his game is glue, everything geared to teamwork, meaning his perceptive movements without the ball will get him a bushel of sly, easy looks at the hoop if others notice and feed him. Tonight he was 7-15 FG and grabbed team highs in rebounds (11) and offensive boards (4). When the Wolves play this unselfishly, he is probably the most emblematic, and will likely be among the most obscure, especially in relation to his contribution.

2. Coming Out Party

Hey, it’s Randy Foye, circa January or Feburary 2007. Those who have been counseling us Foye critics to wait until the guy was back in game shape can gloat a little off this performance. Too often in his first 11 appearances this season Foye wallowed in boom-or-bust mode, bent on arching up treys or taking his shakey wheels for a traipse through the lane. Tonight he threw in the deceptively tough stuff, the midrange game, the runners and the pull-ups and the dish on the move. It made a huge difference both in making the treys and the lay-up tries more unpredictible and in fostering the ball and player movement so much on display tonight. As I mentioned earlier, and am anxious to repeat, Foye, McCants and Jefferson passed the baton fairly regularly tonight. There were three go-to guys and nobody bitched/sulked/malingered or otherwise acted out if one of the other two was bogarting the crayons in the sandbox. And while Foye is not a point guard (16 shots, 2 assists), he is a buffer against the idea of either/or between Jefferson and McCants.

"We’ve said we have to be patient with Randy," an elated Wittman cautioned after the game. "There’s probably going to be another down before there is another up."

And when there is, I’ll describe it and probably criticize it. But tonight’s effort gave credence to the "still recovering from injury" feeling about Foye; there was physical confidence in this "up." Yeah, Foye missed a chippie or two, but the shot selection was light years better than the chuck-fests he showed previously. Maybe this won’t be so much of a "limbo" season for Foye after all.

3. In Praise of Wittman

With ten m
inutes to go in the game and the Wolves clinging to a one point lead, Randy Wittman opted out of his big lineup, subbing in Ryan Gomes and Craig Smith for Ratliff and Jefferson, with Foye, McCants and Snyder filling out the rotation. For those breaking out the slide rules at home, that’s no player above 6-7 (if you believe Craig Smith is 6-7). As a stalwart big lineup guy, I sharpened the poison pen.

But Wittman had noticed Utah coach Jerry Sloan sitting his best players, Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, limiting the Jazz’s options on offense. And he knew a front line of Okur (6-11), Harping (6-7) and Millsap (6-8), might have trouble defending a quicker team in the 4th quarter.

Boom. Foye nailed a trey off a feed from Gomes. Harping tried a jump-hook over Smith on the baseline that didn’t go. Foye missed another trey attempt but Gomes got the board. His shot was blocked by Millsap but Smith got the board. His shot was blocked by Harpring, but Smith got it back, and laid it in. Millsap missed a jumper from the side of the key and Foye rebounded, leading to a neat layup by Gomes on an assist from Snyder. Sloan hurriedly called timeout and got Boozer and D-Will back in the game, but, in just 1:54, the smallball Wolves had bumped a single digit up to 8, permanently changing the complexion of the game.

Had it gone exactly the other way–smallball giving the Jazz a quick seven and swinging the tide–the anti-Wittman venom from me and others would have been righteous. Because he’s got a lousy won-loss record, he’s fairly bland, he stunk up the joint in his coaching stint last year, and he enjoys the support of McHale, Taylor and some others who have been incumbents of the downfall. We’re quick to criticize and slow to praise.

So give the man his due for the smallball gambit–it’s not like that quintet had ever played a minute together before, and it may have been the difference tonight. Wittman also chose this game to showcase Kirk Snyder, who doesn’t know all the team’s plays but logged an effective 24:09 tonight because Witt liked matching him up with the beef of Harpring and Kirilenko at the small forward slot. He probably also knew Snyder had that stint in Utah and Sloan doesn’t change spots that much. Snyder, anxious to make a splash and mindful of his impending free agency, was the right feature at the right time. There was also the fabled Wittman discipline, but lower-keyed and effective this time. After the Wolves raced out to an 8-2 lead, Utah scored the next ten points, leading to a no-nonsense time out from Wittman. Smart move whether he said anything or simply broke the prevailing momentum–the Wolves scored the next seven points.

PS–City Pages writer Jonathan Kaminsky has a nice, long, profile of Al Jefferson up on the site. Worth reading.