Timberwolves split two; Jefferson on the trading block?

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                  Photo by Morven

The Wolves' 116-109 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night was both encouraging and desperately needed. Needed because the team was working on a five game losing streak and earlier this week had scuffled to a 29-point first half deficit against these same moribund Pacers. Encouraging though, because for maybe the first time this season, the Wolves responded to trying times--tough calls from the refs, a late Pacer run--not with hangdog resignation but by bundling their frustrations into a renewed communal intensity.

Unfortunately, the next evening in Chicago, the hangover from that intensity showed. "Both Kevin and Al had a tough night,'' said Kurt Rambis (via NBA.com) of the Wolves 110-96 loss. "It was evident as the game went on that they looked more and more tired. Their bigs did a good job on them. With our offense not there we lost our focus as the game went on." The fatigue was in evidence in their sloppy offensive execution and poor shooting and in their inability to close out on the Bulls' shooters. 

Some observations on both of those games, followed by observations on some more recent, somewhat more troubling news:

Observation 1

The Wolves are having a hard time defending in transition, particularly against three-point shooters. The Bulls, not normally a great three point shooting team, hit seven of their 14 attempts; the night before, the Pacers hit 13 of their 26 threes. Matter of fact, over the last ten games, the Wolves have been the league's worst defenders of the three-point line; their opponents have shot 42.9% from deep in that span. Rambis and his players often defend their defensive tactics by claiming that they'll happily inside baskets for distant threes, but the fact remains: its hard to keep up when your opponent is scoring three for every two of yours.

To my eyes, here's whats happening: for whatever reason--be it inattention, footspeed, or simple lack of effort--the Wolves often seem to be a step behind in their transition defense. In their frenzy to recover to the hoop, they tend to get a touch disorganized. They get caught in mismatches; they overcommit to the paint; they leave players open. Against Indiana, for instance, Troy Murphy constantly found open space behind the line in transition and punished the Wolves by hitting five of his seven bombs.

Observation 2

I want this to be the last time I harp on Jonny Flynn for a while. This is partly because I'm just tired of it, partly because Ramon Sessions has been pretty inconsistent lately, and partly because I really want to like him and appreciate the fact that he is a startlingly athletic, skilled player. To wit:

 

But I would just like to point out that Flynn's relatively impressive numbers over the past two games (a combined 11-23 shooting and ten assists) haven't really been indicative of improved shot-selection or overall decision-making. He's still been blissfully unaware of the help defenders, heedlessly driving directly into the teeth of the defense. He's still over-dribbling, sucking up shot clock without creating meaningful scoring chances. He's still taking deep, contested jumpers. He's still missing open teammates. There.

Final Observation

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports is reporting that Wolves' GM David Kahn offered to trade Al Jefferson to the Pacers for Danny Granger, but was rebuffed. First off, lets be clear that this is a rumor--a rumor from cryptically unidentified "league sources" at that--that has not been confirmed by anyone in within the Wolves organization. But let's pretend, for a moment, that it's true. In purely basketball terms, I would understand Kahn's thinking here. The Wolves primary need right now is an athletic wing player who is able to shoot and create his own scoring opportunities. Granger is all of those things, in addition to having a gangly, roller-disco-y appeal (on the other hand, losing Al would mean a serious dearth of inside scoring). Also, the Wolves have suffered defensively in the past by playing Big Al and Kevin Love together; both are undersized for their positions and neither are the quickest of fellows. 

But I still find this rumor sort of disappointing.  As I pointed out last week, Jefferson has shown impressive resolve in his willingness to adapt his game to Rambis's offense. And he's also shown a real commitment to the Wolves and to his teammates; he really seems like someone who wants to see this project through to the end. For that reason, this quote from the Yahoo! piece--"Minnesota also has chemistry issues between Jefferson and forward Kevin Love. 'There's some jealous stuff that's playing out,' one league source said"--doesn't quite ring true to me. Of course, the tastiest irony of the whole thing is that had Kevin McHale chosen Granger rather than poor Rashad McCants in the 2005 draft, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.


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