The sound of sinking

Categories: Sports

Well, this one didn't feel very good at all. The Timberwolves have had significant leads in the second half of six games this year, five of which have ended in losses. On Tuesday, it was in Oakland, against the Warriors. The Wolves were up by nine points with 4:30 remaining in the game and had been playing confidently and aggressively, allowing Al Jefferson to exploit mismatches inside. But then Golden State went to a 2-3 zone and the Wolves, resembling a flummoxed JV team (or like me in 8th grade when I faced my first curveball; I fell over), lost all poise, went totally haywire, failed to get the ball to Big Al, failed to score again in regulation.

That was ridiculous but last night's 88-83 loss to the Blazers was even worse. The Wolves were playing at home against a tired Blazers team that was coming off a tough loss and long flight the night before. Again, the Wolves held a solid late game lead (this time, 71-60 with 2:03 left in the third) and were again afflicted with a malaise--in effort, in execution, in poise--that cost them the win.

The Highway

Now, first, it's extremely hard to fully know the complex decision-making and personal dynamics that go into coaching in the NBA. And I think members of the press and public are much too quick to judge coaches when the full array of information is not really available. Second, it's plainly up to the players, as highly paid pros, to avoid the kinds of mental and physical lapses that have cursed the Wolves late in games this year. As Coach Wittman put it after the game, it's on the players to be "on the same page, doin' what they're supposed to be doin'."

That said, there are a few things I want to point out. The first is tactical. As I've discussed before, the Wolves have made a commitment to a small lineup, with Kevin Love and Al Jefferson manning the 'four' and 'five' spots respectively. Portland, though, is an exceptionally tall team, with multiple long-limbed players available at each frontline position. Appropriately, then, Wolves seven footer Jason Collins saw his first action of the season. He did a nice job too, playing physical defense on Portland's rookie phenom Greg 'Black Gandalf' Oden (who appears to be older than time itself, but is also exceptionally quick and athletic for a huge guy). Why, then, in the fourth quarter, with Jefferson being swallowed up by the much taller Oden, did Collins not come in to occupy the ancient wizard? This would have moved Jefferson over to the power forward spot and a more favorable matchup with Lamarcus Aldridge. With the Wolves struggling to execute their offense and desperately needing Big Al's scoring, it would seem pretty important to structure the lineup to the big fellow's best interests, no? Yes?

The second thing is a little tricky. As do many pro and college coaches, Wittman often substitutes for players immediately after they make a mistake. He sells it (and many of his players echo this sentiment) both as an expectation of professionalism and as a teaching point: if you're not going to do the things we need you to do, we'll take you out until you learn. But with Wittman, who both played for and occasionally quotes the foul-mouthed Bobby Knight, it often seems punitive.

For instance, last night Jefferson struggled with his defensive rebounding technique, often failing to box-out his opponent. So, Wittman removed him from the game for six minutes of the third and fourth quarters, during which time his team scored only eight points and gave up most of their lead. I realize that these lapses can be frustrating for a coach who, presumably, stresses just this kind of fundamental every day. But in a game decided by only five points, in which his team struggled to score, how does it make any sense for Jefferson (who, despite his rebounding problems, made 12 of 16 shots) to play only 34 minutes?

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Shaddy needs your love

Also last night: Rashad McCants came in the game in the third quarter and immediately hoisted two contested shots, early in possessions. Wittman spun around and, loud enough for everybody to hear, yelled "get him outta there!" McCants's and Wittman's relationship seems to have deteriorated markedly over the past few weeks. Frustrated by his poor shot selection and mercurial defensive effort, Wittman has reduced McCants's minutes, often with punitive-seeming substitutions like the one last night. And as he has seen less floor time, McCants's pouting and poor decision-making have increased. McCants is one of those arrogant-but-fragile guys who talks epic trash but then contorts his face and withdraws from his teammates when things don't go his way. But he is also a phenomenally skilled athlete and the Wolves' most talented perimeter scorer. It seems incumbent upon a coach to create a circumstance in which a guy like that could play and thrive right? This is a guy who sports tattoos that read "Born to be Hated" and "Dying to be Loved"--how often do people this insecure thrive in situations in which every mistake they make is punished?

After the game, the seething Wittman spoke like a man at his wits' end about how to get through to his team. Neither the coach nor his players will admit that anyone has tuned out but, to me, Wittman's "play the right way, or else" attitude signals a lack of trust in his team--lack of trust that they are mature, skilled and professional enough to figure the game out for themselves. We find this attitude in certain high-school classrooms and in some work situations, but it seems exceptionally rampant in sports, where the paternalistic, authoritarian model holds sway. (Recall, once again, the image of one older white man surrounded by huge, young black men, which young guys possess astounding physical gifts.) Maybe the Wolves youth and sorry record justifies that lack of trust but my guess is that it's the other way around. To me, the late game meltdowns show that the team doesn't trust its own abilities, that they've internalized Wittman's implicit lack of faith.

Fourth Quarter Roy

You may remember that the Wolves drafted Blazers guard Brandon Roy with the sixth pick of the 2006 draft and then immediately traded him to Portland for Randy Foye. Unlike most folks, who view the trade as an unmitigated disaster considering Roy's quick rise and Foye's struggles to learn the point guard position, I'm going to resist explicit comparison between the two players. That said, Brandon Roy is really, really good. Its been mentioned that Roy appears to be moving slower than the other players on the floor. He appears to hypnotize defenders, maneuvering them with subtle pump fakes and crossovers until they are grossly out of position, their bodies forced into weird hops and contortions. There are (at least) two reasons for this, I think. The first is that, for a player in only his third season, Roy is preternaturally poised. Young players, responding to the mind-bending speed of the NBA game, often attempt to play faster than they are able, not relying on their natural skill and athletic ability to do the work for them. This is part of the reason for the spazzy, hurried look and poor decision-making that afflicts most rookies (see: Corey Brewer).

Roy seems to have never had this problem. Partially because he played for years in college and partially because he just seems to be a patient, self-possessed guy, Roy projects a certain serenity of movement and affect that we usually only find in seasoned vets. He doesn't make many mistakes; he doesn't lose his cool; he's pretty much got it under control. His other great, slightly less mysterious asset is sublime footwork and ballhandling. Every movement seems purposeful and balanced; he simply moves more efficiently than almost any other player in the league. He displayed all of these skills last night. When, early in the game, Brewer was playing intense man-to-man defense, Roy never forced the issue. He simply waited for the game to come to him and when it did (in the fourth quarter of all times) he attacked the Wolves defense with a series of gorgeous, twisting moves. Ok, I'll say it: it would have been incredibly cool to see him play with Kevin Garnett.


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