Copyright 2007 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
Game #57, Road Game #27: Minnesota 84, Cleveland 92
Season Record: 12-45
1. The Price of Youth
What a discouraging game.
Wanna bet that the Cavaliers had a scout at Target Center for the Wolves win over Utah last Tuesday? Coach Mike Brown seemed to set his stellar defense for a team that would deftly move the ball and present probing, multifaceted threats. In particular, Brown, thinking he had 20-point scorers like Foye, McCants and Gomes to worry about, decided to single-cover Al Jefferson with the Luthuanian leviathan known as Z, and let tall, panther-quick cohorts like Ben Wallace and LeBron James scout the horizon beyond the paint.
That was fine with Jefferson, who was enjoying the elbow room even before Z (surname Ilgauskas) committed one stupid foul by going over the back on a free throw miss, and then another one showing too hard on a perimeter pick and roll in the first six minutes of play. That sent him to the pine, to be replaced by Anderson Varejao, a Raggedy Andy-headed string-bean quite the opposite of the bald Z. He promptly got flattened (half shoulder, half patented Varejao fffflop) for a Jefferson slam. Brown understandably flipped Varejao over to Gomes and so it was Ben Wallace’s turn to guard Jefferson. By the half, Jefferson had hit half of his 16 field goal attempts for 18 points and 5 offensive rebounds (out of 7 total) at intermission.
Alas, the rest of the team also had 18 points, on horrendous 7-30 FG. The ball movement and constant stabs at penetration–not to mention the silky, visually pleasant teamwork–so much in evidence against Utah was kaput, with a capital dipthong. Just a few quarters beyond his breakout game against the Jazz, Randy Foye broke back in, displaying all the bad habits that caused me to sour on him earlier this season– the ill-chosen, off-balance jumpers early in the shot clock, the running alongside of his opponent’s dribble so he can he can get a better profile on the man’s successful jumper, and the lazy entry passes that, while not usually stolen, certainly give defenses the time to cogitate and react.
Hopefully the offensive gameplan was for Ryan Gomes to exploit the smallball matchup and take Ben Wallace out on the perimeter, the only justification I can come up with for the normally prudent Gomes chucking it up like the second coming of Rashad McCants, at 2-7 FG in 11:04. Speak of the devil, Shaddy checked in with 2:41 to play in the first quarter and managed to squeeze off three before the buzzer, then added three more in 8:41 of the second quarter. Three and three make six shot attempts and six misses for zero points in 11:22 first half minutes. Foye? Zip for three but a literal bonus point for being allowed to shoot the technical on a defensive three-second call against Cleveland, and thus transform his halftime goose egg into a straight line. After his first quarter delirium, Gomes came back to earth with but one clank in the second, and thus finished the half with 4 points on 2-8. For those of you slow with the abaci (abacuses?), that’s a collective 2-17 FG and a whopping 5 points from the squad’s second, third, and fouth leading scorers in the first half–and because of shot selection and general disdain for the first pass, let alone the extra pass, they collectively deserved almost every miss.
This is what happens with a young ballclub. They play well and then they don’t, learning painful lessons on the job. Coach Randy Wittman addressed this after the Toronto loss Wednesday, but it is typical young club behavior, the habit of relaxing after a grand victory. The vexing aspect of it was not so much Toronto, however, but this game, after their Canadian clubbing theoretically taught them the error of instant self-regard. They had the contrast–fun and bloody games a la Utah, or belittling suffocation a la Toronto. The irksome thing is that they mentally opted for another bout of belittling suffocation, this time in Cleveland.
At the half, Hanny and Pete were marvelling about how nice it was to shoot only 32.6% and yet be down a mere four points at 36-40. But from the time the Cavs’ Devin Brown opened the game by waltzing down for an easy jumper and Randy Foye followed that matador D with a travel, until the time McCants rang the garbage time dinner bell by nailing his 4th quarter treys, there was not a single moment when I seriously thought the Wolves were going to win this game.
In the second half, Mike Brown took a gander at the stat sheet and decided Big Al needed a double team after all. With Z and Big Ben–and isn’t it ironic that Z is much bigger than both Big Al and Big Ben?–taking turns as the primary matchup and sometimes tag-teaming, with a little guy flashing over to boot, Jefferson had 4 points and 3 boards in 20:36 of the second half after going 18-7 in 20:39 of the first half. With all this attention focused on the undersized center, the undersized power forward, Gomes, managed to sneak outside for a 7-point flurry in 71 seconds to knot the game up at 51-51 midway through the third quarter. But by the end of the third Foye and McCants were a combined 1-14 FG and the Wolves were back down by 7.
When it was mercifully over, Foye was 1-9 FG for 4 points, two assists, and three turnovers in 33:32, not a good line for a point guard or off guard, even one given a fistful of free passes for making a ginger transition from one-and-a-half to two good knees. McCants had a totally deceptive double-digit night–six of his ten points came on meaningless three-pointers in the final minute of play–but to his (small) credit he did register a team-high 3 assists while finishing sixth in minutes-played at 27:37.
With just 1:22 to go in the game, the Wolves had amassed but 75 points and visited the free throw line 10 times. For the game they shot 39.1%. Young players or not, it is worrisome that the ballclub, which ranks 29th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per game, can be so inept offensively despite the fact that three players perceived to be cornerstones–Jefferson, Foye, and to a slightly lesser extent McCants–are all much better offensively than they are on defense.
2. Management Follies
About the only good thing about owner Glen Taylor’s halftime "interview" with Tom Hanneman tonight was that it spared us the cheerleader report and Sweetwater Jones. As infomerical entertainments go, it was somewhere between the Victoria Principal/Susan Lucci testimonials and the somewhat clownish guy walking around with all those question marks on his suitjacket. Actually the latter wouldn’t be a bad analogy for the current state of the Wolves.
Taylor let it be known that he is really enjoying this team, especially compared to the underachieving teams of the previous two years. He knows, in other words, that this 12-45 team is not underachieving, but likes the job coach Randy Wittman is doing–Kevin McHale and the rest of the front office are not discussed. He says he has many people telling him and writing him that they like this team better than other recent editions too, and would like to invite still other folks to come out and decide for themselves. And, oh yeah, the new Timberwolves season ticket packages for next year are about to go on sale soon. If Taylor was this subtle in his wedding invitation business, the fancy, script-flowing marital announcements would go out complete with a picture of a the father of the bride holding a shotgun between the groom’s shoulder blades.
In very much related news, the Wolves have bought out the contract of Theo Ratliff and would very much like to do the same with Antoine Walker. The spin that dumping Ratliff will open up more playing time for rookie Chris Richard is about as disingenuous as the earlier spin that Ratliff’s
return would enable the Wolves to see how well Al Jefferson plays with a shot-blocking center. Richard got a whole 3:21 worth of burn tonight (his plus +1 led the team, of course), which is approximately how much Ratliff and Jefferson played together after Theo’s return.
For quite some time now, it has been apparent that Wittman prefers Jefferson at center and Gomes at power forward. Smallball. Game by game, it has worked out much better than I would have imagined. Tonight, for example, the shrunken banshee lineup battled to a 40-40 draw on the boards with the top rebounding team in the NBA. Wittman likes to spread the floor with his small unit and give Jefferson room to operate down low. He also likes the other players utilizing this spacing and their quickness to crash the boards and outhustle as much as outmuscle opponents for position under the hoop. Perhaps this lineup is giving Jefferson experience getting his shot off against the tall timber, and hopefully learning how to survey the floor and dish back out when teams pack the paint to defend him.
But I can’t embrace it. Anyone who watches Jefferson knows he’s a classic power forward that, even by the standards of the "new" NBA, with its paucity of dominant big men and anti-hand checking rules, is best suited to operate beside a center precisely like Ratliff, who can help out on defense, is laterally quick around the hoop, sets a good example by showing hard on peimeter pick and rolls and doesn’t need the ball. Even if we all know Ratliff wasn’t part of the future here, isn’t that kind of pivot man something this franchise should be manuevering towards? Shouldn’t we get Jefferson and Gomes ingrained in those habits now, in their formative stages? Do we really need Jefferson playing 69% of the center minutes for this ballclub and just 5% of the power forward’s minutes? (According to the 82games.com web data.) And do we really need the Wolves’ 8 most popular 5-man lineups to feature Jefferson as the center–especially when the most popular 5-man lineup that doesn’t feature Jefferson as a cetner puts Mark Madsen in the pivot instead?
Perhaps there is guerrilla tanking going on here. A Timberwolves team with Jefferson and Ratliff playing beside each other for most of the season would be very close to 20 wins by now, in my opinion, which would vault them ahead of another five teams in addition to Miami. Perhaps that’s a little too close for comfort on losing that Clips’ pick this year for the Jaric deal.
Then there is the money angle. Taylor himself acknowledged (in the newspaper, of course, not the infomercial) that the buyout would save him a chunk of the remainder of Theo’s $11 million contract this year–on the order of the $3 million or so that he had remaining. Meanwhile, consider that Ratliff has missed 45 games–officially more than half of an 82-game regular season. Consider that with his injury history there is a possibility that he is insured against loss of play due to injury. When I tentatively asked around, through a member of the communications staff, about whether the Wolves were getting any insurance money due to Ratliff’s injury, the staffer reported back that he couldn’t find out. Now that Ratliff is gone, I’ll be a little more aggressive and ask the question myself to Taylor or GM Jim Stack or some other team representative. And I wouldn’t mind if a daily beat writer traveling with the team beat me to it.
3. Silver Linings
Not all is amiss and awry in Wolves land tonight, and amid all the dolor, I thought I’d save the best for last. First off, Sebastian Telfair has begun to improve his shot much as he hiked up his court vision and sense of command in prior months. For the past 8 games, Bassy has shot 48%, (12-25) from beyond the arc. He has scored in double figures in 6 of those 8 games, along with running the offense far better than Foye or Jaric or McCants in terms of pace and proactive passing. Let’s face it, he’s the only point guard on the roster. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to label Telfair a reliable shooter. Tonight, after hitting some big shots in the 3rd quarter and clearly establishing himself as the second-best Timberwolf behind Jefferson, he got a little too happy with himself and clanged a pair of stupid shots that were crucial to helping the Cavs pull away. On the second of these, McCants was literally pointing down toward Jefferson in the paint as Telfair drew iron with a trey. I understand Bassy is feeling–and sort of thriving on–the heat of competition for playing time with Foye, McCants and Jaric (the current short straw man, logging just 6:26 tonight). But excitability is his enemy.
By contrast, Corey Brewer seems forever excited and unruffled at the same time. The rook’s work on LeBron James tonight was as staunch as one could hope for against a player who wound up with 30 points and 13 assists.(And if we’re talking about real silver linings, that would go to everyone lucky enough to see James’s monster dunk midway through the fourth quarter, when he tried to thread his way through two or three Wolves and stumbled around the foul line, losing the ball a little out in front of him, only to grab it as he stumbled a bit and rise up with literally incredible speed and elevation to slam it home. "That is a different look than anything I have ever seen in my life!" Petersen claimed, rightly going batshit. "TV doesn’t do it justice." Perhaps, but even on TV it looked like somebody hitting the fast forward button on a dude who disappares behind players for a second only to emerge as if jumping on a trampoline to slam it home.)
Whatever is said about Brewer, and I’ve been pro and con, the guy is dogged and he plays the game like he’s memorized the handbook. Tonight he racked up 15 points (5-10 FG) and 4 steals, but it was his simple foot movement and determination to stay in front of LeBron that was most impressive. Meanwhile, if you want a half full/empty glass, think about how shrewd Brewer’s shot selection is–the ex-Gator almost never shoots outside the flow and rhythm of the offense and hustles hard enough to put himself in many great positions to score. Now consider that despite taking such an inordinately high percentage of good shots, Brewer is still making less than 35% of them. Blame it on his youth, and cross your fingers.