Game #68, Road Game #33: Minnesota 113, Indiana 124
Game #69, Home Game #36: New York 93, Minnesota 114
Season Record: 18-51
1. Illusions of Mediocrity
Let’s start with the good news. Over the last five or six weeks, Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman has challenged the team’s three most prominent building blocks to upgrade their respective games in specific ways. For Al Jefferson, it has been better defense; for Randy Foye, more overt point-guard related behavior; for Rashad McCants, less holding of the ball and more dish or penetration. And all three have made tangible progress in these areas, with the sort of slow, steady improvement that creates optimism about the future. Much more than in the previous three seasons, the Timberwolves do indeed look like they are putting specific pieces in place and rebuilding the right way–from the ground up.
But here’s the nasty chaser: Despite its 13-17 record over the past two months, and 8-10 mark since Foye claimed the point guard slot in the starting lineup, the Wolves continue to be routinely trounced when playing quality ballclubs. Over the past 30, their record is 9-5 against sub-.500 teams, 1-0 against the .500 Philadelphia 76ers, and 3-12 versus teams that have won more than they’ve lost. In the 18 since Foye took the point guard reins, those figures are 6-3 versus sub.500, 1-0 against Philly, and 1-7 against over-.500 ballclubs.
This week offered a pretty decent view of whether the Wolves could achieve mediocrity. They faced four sub-.500 opponents. Three of them are absolutely horrible ballclubs at the present time: A Clippers team with Chris Kamen out, Al Thornton dinged, and Sam Cassell released (not to mention Elton Brand, shelved for the season with an injury); a Memphis team that unloaded Pau Gasol for nickels on the dollar; and a wretched Knicks outfit that is destined to produce at least two or three best-selling accounts of the abject stupidity, mendacity and incompetence of their dysfunction. Almost by default, then, the gut check game for the Wolves this past week came on the road against an Indiana Pacers team still improbably in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff spot despite what at the time was a record of 27-41.
To Minnesota’s credit, the club took care of business against the weakest trio of patsies. This is not to be discounted: I think it’s fair to say that two months ago, the mark versus these same Clips/Grizz/Knicks would have been at best 2-1 and probably 1-2 (there is probably no point in their season when they couldn’t have beaten these professional imposters known as the Knicks). But the loss to Indiana is just as meaningful a gauge of the apparently limited ceiling of this club. The Pacers play horrible defense, and with Jermaine O’Neal out, the don’t have a reliable low-post threat. Yet they were able to blitz the Wolves for 66 points in the first half, largely because Minnesota’s "small" lineup was still too slow for the rapid ball movement that usually resulted in made treys–the Pacers racked up 16 assists (6 by backup point guard Travis Diener, who was plus +18 in 15:20) and Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy nailed 7-8 from beyond the arc. All this in one half.
Meanwhile, the ever-underrated Jeff Foster and the relatively tall lineup that enabled Indiana to bring size to the double-teams frustrated Al Jefferson into just 5 points. The other Wolves didn’t necessarily pick up the slack. although a stupid foul in the final seconds of the half enabled Foye to hit three FTs and finish with 12 at intermission. Jefferson, Foye and McCants were a combined 5-20 FG. The Wolves were down 17 at the break, and, despite some gunner heroics from McCants in the second half, were doomed by Jefferson’s foul trouble and the ongoing inability to the Pacers perimeter game.
Aside from building a little confidence, the Knicks game was a waste of time. There hasn’t been a worse performance by a ballclub thus far this season than what the Knicks showed at Target Center Saturday night–no mean feat when you consider the Wolves are half of every matchup there. All the hullaballoo about Jefferson’s improved defense looked silly when David Lee and Malik Rose took turns abusing him down low. (After blocking four shots and taking a charge in the first half of the Pacer game, Jefferson played more like the guy leery of picking up cheap fouls a la the second half in Indiana.) But it didn’t matter that Lee and Rose were a combined 14-19 FG (led by Lee’s perfect 6 for 6), because "point guard" Jamal Crawford was busy chucking up 19 field goal attempts all by his lonesome and making only 6.
Jeffeson’s weak D was not the only example of how the three and a half quarters of garbage time that comprised the Knicks game allowed the Wolves to engage in half-assed habits without penalty. Take Shaddy McCants’s Jekyll-and-Hyde halves versus Indiana and New York. On Friday, McCants was 0-5 FG in the first half, and defended poorly as well. But his saving grace was ball movement, with 4 assists, including a gorgeous bounce pass to Chris Richard, in just 8:48 of action. Then, in the second half, McCants went off for 8-12 FG, including a couple of unbelievable shots over the Pacers’ tall perimeter pressure. After he nailed a pair of treys to bring the Wolves from 17 down to 82-93 after three, Indiana ratcheted up the coverage, especially when Jefferson was sidelined with foul trouble. McCants squeezed off two Js he had no business releasing, let alone converting, as he went up in perimeter traffic: the first a step back two-pointer to make it 90-103 with 7 minutes-plus to play and the other a prayer-bomb for three to pretty-up the margin to 106-120 with about two minutes to play.
This is the rub with McCants, that he gets hot when it doesn’t matter. While that may be so thus far, particularly compared to Jefferson and Foye, there is no denying his passing and overall teamwork have taken a quantum leap forward lately, which is why his second half of the Knicks game was so negatively funky. After some shooting practice against New York’s nonexistent defense–he shot 9-13 FG, giving him 41 points in the four quarters comprised by the Indy second half and the New York first half–he clanked for 1-8 FG in the second half, making him 1-13 FG in the wrap-around halves to that 41-point middle. The difference yesterday was, zero assists in 16:46 of the second half. Asked to explain the difference between the two Knicks halves, Wittman replied that "he settled more. He attacked in the first half, and got to the free throw line for those 15-foot, 18-foot shots. In the second half it was more threes." And less vision. Oh well, at least he wasn’t holding the ball–just chucking it.
To return to square one from our wayward path on this point, the Wolves now face six straight opponents with over-.500 records. By the lights of even their recent "surge" (and yes, the word match is intentional), they figure to win but one of these games, going into the final 7 with 19 victories. The draft pick isn’t going to the Clips, in other words, but karmic intervention will be necessary (or very shrewd talent evaluation) to land a collegiate or foreign-born stud.
2. What’s Needed
Different folks have different ideas about the abiding priority for this club, in part because there is clearly more than one glaring need. I maintain that it is a defensive-oriented center who can step out and hit a midrange jumper on occasion. And no, I don’t mean Craig Smith, who has upped his quotient of 8-to-15 footers in response to advice from the team’s braintrust on how to be a better complement to Jefferson on the front line. I mean a center, who can snuff David Lee when he gets past Jefferson on the baseline, and slide ov
er to cover when Big Al is inevitably too slow returning from the show on the pick and roll. Is it a coincidence that as Jefferson’s blocks and defensive focus has gone up that his scoring has dipped some? Don’t know, and don’t want him to get a pass at the defensive end, but when someone is as gifted at putting the ball in the hole from the paint as Jefferson is, you want to ride that horse as much as possible. A guy like Marcus Camby would be ideal–tremendous on-ball and help defender who mostly shoots midrange jumpers–but since Cambys don’t grow on trees, any large, stanuch defender who can keep defenses even a little honest will do nicely.
Personally, my second priority would be an uber-athletic small forward. I resist a strong internal pull for lanky, defensive-oriented point guard–a Rondo type would really be good–because Randy Foye has shown enough at the point in recent weeks to see if he can continue to develop. Make no mistake: Foye at the point is a vital part of the Wolves’ foundation in that if it doesn’t work out, the rebuilding scheme could easily come tumbling down. If Foye is ensconced at the point, Brewer and Gomes can swing from 2-3 and 3-4 respectively without squeezing McCants out of the picture because you need to play Foye more as a combo 2. If Foye can’t hack it serving a majority of his minutes at the point, McCants is more redundant, and Brewer, Gomes and Jefferson must contend with more smallball or fall by the wayside. A stud small forward, on the other hand, makes Gomes a valuable 7th man at both forward slots and lets Brewer defer shots and score more in transition running the floor with Foye and the new guy.
Teams don’t do well in the playoffs going 6-10 and 6-7 in the frontcourt. And they don’t do well without someone who can both pounce in transition and run the half-court with aplomb in the backcourt. That’s why, even during their recent hot streak, the Wolves are losing at least 5 out of 6 to over-.500 opponents.
3. Quick Hits
Jefferson’s family was here for the Knicks’ game (and presumably for Easter). I assumed the guy with the very prominent, Al Jeffersonian brow had to be his biological father, but a recent City Pages feature said his father had died. In any case, this guy was impassive; whereas the three females in the group about a half-dozen rows up behind the Wolves’ bench boisterously clapped and hollared for everything pro-Jefferson and -Timberwolves, the father-figure clapped only when Jefferson dished for an assist. And wouldn’t you know it, Big Al set his career high with a half-dozen of those dimes versus the Knicks.
One thing about Gomes at the 4, he can step out on a big and hit that midrange, and then when the guy comes out to greet him, can put the ball on the floor and create. As Gomes’ confidence in his offense increases, we are seeing more and more of that. Despite his 8 rebounds to go with his game-high 26 points yesterday, however, Gomes is less impressive defending the paint, especially on-ball defense.
Tough times for the Florida duo. I’ve been on the Chris Richard bandwagon all season, but it is hard to ignore his delayed reaction when a big flashes into the paint on him. He’s a piece of oak in the low block–precious few backing him down are able to sneak through, and must resort to the baby hook or something–but slow to react to good perimeter passing. But Brewer is the real disappointment lately. After displaying pretty savvy shot selection all season, he seems determined not to let his accuracy woes affect him–only to have it affect him by his pulling the trigger too soon (and thus way too foolishly) on the shot clock. His clanking was a significant factor in the snuffed comeback against the Pacers and he hasn’t made more than a third of his shots in four straight games. Worst of all, Kirk Snyder pushing ahead of him in the rotation seems to have affected his Flying Wallendas defensive persona.
By contrast, Snyder is playing with great confidence and carving out a spot for himself on somebody’s roster next season. An unrestricted free agent in less than 4 weeks, it will be curious to see if he can bag anything more than the $1 M exemption from anyone looking for a relatively hard-nosed 24-year old with an intriguing upside. Snyder barged into the rotation by becoming a hairshirt on Kevin Durant in the February Seattle game. But lately he’s impressed with his ability to get to the rim (and/or the free throw line) via dribble penetration, and his throttle-down mindset when he snags a rebound on the defensive end. He could be a sleeper-steal in the trade for the already cut Gerald Green, or a fleeting footnote in Wolves history.