The Three Pointer: Giving One Away

AP Photo by Paul Battaglia

Game #73, Home Game #38: Detroit 94, Minnesota 90

Season Record: 19-54

1. A Rough Night For Foye

There is more than one goat in a game where the Wolves blew a 21-point lead and wilted down the stretch against a Detroit Pistons team resting arguably their top three starters–Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton. But in a contest that was obviously Minnesota’s for the taking, point guard Randy Foye was especially noticeable in his inability to deliver at either end of the court.

It certainly didn’t begin that way. In the first quarter it seemed apparent that the Wolves were keyed up to win their 5th straight home game and that the Pistons were mailing it in. Especially impressive was the chemistry between Foye and Al Jefferson, starting 70 seconds into the game when Foye fed Jefferson for a slam dunk. It happened again at the 7:21 mark, and a third time–this one finishing with a Jefferson jump hook–at 1:09 to play. The period finished with Jefferson going 4-4 FG, three of them on dimes dropped by Foye. Couple with an aggressive 5-5 FG by notorious clanker Corey Brewer, the Wolves had raced to a 30-18 lead via 9 assists and a 14-6 rebounding edge.

The pattern continued with both benches on the floor during the first half of the second quarter, Minnesota pushing the lead to 43-22 with 6:50 to play before the break. A Flip Saunders team had just 4 assists in the first 17:10 and Wolves were heading for a blowout.

Then coach Randy Wittman subbed back in his starters (Jaric, who had entered at 11:43, was already in the game. Brewer came back at 6:16; Jefferson and Foye together at 5:30; and Gomes at 4:35. Yet the Wolves didn’t score a single field goal in the period after Chris Richard’s put-back dunk with 5:38 to play. "Up to that point, we were moving the ball and making the extra pass," Wittman said, and indeed the team’s assist/turnover ratio at the time was 13/4. Added Wittman, "I think we gave this game away in the last six minutes of the second quarter."

Pistons’ coach Saunders agreed, and even pointed to the specific moment. "I’ve always said one play can change a game and for us no question it was when they missed those four free throws in a row [two by Jaric and two by Jefferson] and we went down and scored and cut the lead to nine." That was during a 16-2 Pistons run that had them back in the game, down just 5, 49-44, at the half.

Coming out for the second half, Minnesota went back to their bread and butter–Jefferson in the low block. After getting one measly FG attempt in the second period, Big Al scored 7 of the team’s first 10 points in just the opening 2:25 of the third to bump the lead back up to 59-51. At that point Jefferson had 19 very efficient points on 7-8 from the field and there was still more than 21 minutes to left play. But Saunders found a pair of matchups he liked–Tayshaun Prince posting up either Corey Brewer (for 6:43) or Kirk Snyder (for 5:17) and rookie backup point guard Rodney Stuckey (playing for Billups) taking Foye off the dribble. Together, Prince and Stuckey combined for 19 of the Pistons’ 21 points in the third to keep the Wolves’ lead contained at 7, 72-65, heading into the final period.

But with Jefferson on the pine, the Wolves endured another scoring drought in the first three minutes, enabling the Pistons to tie the game once more. Jason Maxiell in particular was owning the boards, and a cold Rashad McCants kept clanking jumpers. But then Craig Smith executed a nifty pass in the corner to set up Jaric for a trey (The Rhino’s 4th assist) and McCants finally stopped shooting and started dishing, finding Richard for another slam and then, after Gomes and Jefferson returned to action at 5:46, Shaddy fed Big Al for a layup 17 seconds later as Pistons big Amir Johnson committed the foul. Wittman chose that time to sub in Foye for McCants. I asked three journalists around me who they’d rather have in the game right then, Foye or McCants. Everyone (including me) said McCants–it just wasn’t Foye’s night. Jefferson converted the free throw to make it 83-80 with 5:29 to go. And then Foye pissed away the game.

Yes, Foye nailed a trey to flip a two point deficit into a one point lead with 2:33 to go. Yes, Foye hit a back-arching floater driving across the lane to make cut a three-point deficit down to one with just 31.6 seconds left to play. And yes, Foye’s line doesn’t look that shabby at all: 18 points (on 6-14 FG), 5 rebounds and 4 assists versus just two turnovers.

But Foye couldn’t stay with Stuckey on D, as the rook drew four fouls on Foye in the final 4:29; none of them the sort of strategic grab meant to pray for missed FTs to cut a lead. In fact all of them occurred with the teams within two points of each other. Stuckey was 7-8 FT as a result, and also stuck 14-foot jumper to break an 88-88 tie in the final minute. Asked why Foye couldn’t stay with Stuckey, Wittman at first pretended he didn’t understand the question (or maybe he was just fatigued). When I clarified–was it bad foot speed, overplaying the dribble, inexperience?–the coach replied, "By labelling it that, you are just making excuses. You [meaning Foye] have got to defend."

At the other end of the court, Foye’s inability or disinclination to get the ball to Jefferson was driving Big Al crazy–his last field goal attempt occurred with 4:45 to play. With little more than a minute to go in a tie game, Jefferson was literally jumping up and down demanding the ball in the half court. This display of pique was most unwise because it practically obligated Foye to force-feed the rock–something the Pistons well knew, and stole the entry pass Foye attempted on the left block. (Pin that Foye turnover on Jefferson. Pin the half-dozen times Jefferson, who finished 9-12 FG, didn’t get the ball when he should have in the 4th quarter, on Foye.)

After the steal, Stuckey came down and canned that pull-up jumper over Foye. Wittman called a timeout and subbed in McCants for Brewer to spead the floor a little bit, as the Wolves were down 2 with 45 seconds to play. Out of the timeout, with 15 seconds still on the shot clock, Foye attempted and missed a difficult fadeway over a charging Maxiell. Asked if he’d gotten the shot he wanted on the play, Wittman didn’t play dumb. "No," he said flatly. "There was a switch and we didn’t take advantage of it. Maxiell [Jefferson’s man] switched out and we didn’t take advantage of the mismatch." As the Wolves walked off the floor, there was steam coming out of Jefferson’s ears as he pursed his lips and shook his head. Foye finished at minus -14, five points to the bad of Brewer’s second-worst minus -11.

In the first and third periods, Jefferson was 8-9 FG, Foye was 4-7 FG with 4 assists, and Wolves outscored the Pistons by 14. In the second and fourth quarters, Jefferson was 1-3 FG, Foye was 2-7 FG with zero assists, and the Pistons outscored the Wolves by 18.

2. Blistered By the Bench

Their bench kicked our rear end," Wittman announced after the game–no mean feat, given that three typical Piston benchwarmers were starting in place of Billups, ‘Sheed and Hamilton. McCants and Craig Smith–two Wolves with eFG% that are among the highest on the team–combined for 3-19 FG and 0-4 from beyond the arc. Overall, Detroit’s subs outscored Minnesota’s 40-17, led by Walter Hermann, who dominated the Brewer/Snyder tandem and occasionally Jaric for 11 points.

3. Kudos

In tonight’s press kit, Wolves stat guru Paul Swanson put together individual totals for the players both in the past 12 games (not counting tonight’s loss) when Minnesota went 7-5, and in the previous 5 contests, all of them losses. The biggest difference in the
7-5 and 0-5 playing rotations is that Marko Jaric get the minutes normally allotted to the injured Sebastian Telfair. And whereas Bassy’s assist to turnover was an impressive 6.0/1.6 during that 5-game losing streak, Jaric’s marks over the last dozen are 5.0/1.1, and he shot 50% (versus Telfair’s 40.5% in the previous five) besides.

Kirk Snyder likewise is shooting well–50.6%–over the past dozen, is getting to the free throw line through aggressive penetration, and is defending as well as Corey Brewer. Bottom line, if no one knew who was the heavily-invested first-round pick and who was the recently-acquired player from whom not much was expected, people would be as likely to name Snyder as the keeper right now as they would Brewer. No bias there (I actually like Brewer, as most folks are aware), just fact. Tonight Snyder tied Jaric with a team-best plus +9, while, despite his hot early shooting, Brewer finished at minus -11.

Ryan Gomes was among those who had a tough night shooting (3-10 FG), but in classic Gomes fashion did enough little things right to register a plus +2. Before tonight, Gomes had converted half his field goal attempts and was averaging 17.8 ppg over the last dozen. His improvement and the development of Foye in the backcourt have enabled the Wolves to shoot a surprising 49% as a team since the all star break.