The Three-Pointer: A Pathetic Loss
1. Sorry Point Guards
Who do you want at the point, Jaric or Hudson? How would you like to die, poison or the electric chair?
Jaric's ineptitude is for me the biggest surprise, up or down, among all the personnel on the Wolves this season. I'm not going to go into lengthy detail, because blasting Jaric will probably be the subject of my next Hang Time in the paper a week from today. But the guy turns the fundamentals of point guard play--bringing the ball up the court, or making an entry pass into the top of the key, let alone the post, in the half-court sets--into a real adventure. He doesn't penetrate to the hoop nor post up nearly as often as he should. Tonight he had Chris Paul, seven inches smaller, guarding him. He tried three shots--two of them from outside the three-point arc--in 17 minutes. He had two assists and four turnovers.
Worst of all, it seems pretty obvious to me that Jaric takes plays off, both physically and mentally. He clearly didn't have his head on straight to play the second half tonight. I'm beginning to understand how the Clippers lost all those games in the 4th quarter last season. Jesus but he was terrible in the first 3 minutes of the third quarter.
On to Mr. Hudson. The Wolves television announcers were praising him to high heaven tonight, saying he was perhaps the second best player on the team recently, and they kept it up even as I watched Hudson jack up shot after shot and consistently get beaten off the dribble by either Chris Paul or Speedy Claxton.
Let's all remember this: Both Hudson and Michael Olowokandi say they are finally healthy. They are being given every chance to succeed. So there are absolutely no more excuses. Kandi has put together four pretty good games in a row (more on that in a minute); at least better than reasonable people who had watched the Wolves the past two years had any right to expect. Hudson? Yeah, he defended Gilbert Arenas as well as any other Timberwolf (eh, Arenas also had 33 points on just 20 shots from the field that game). But any talk of this defensive resurgence due to healthy ankles on the part of T-Hud certainly looked silly tonight.
If you're making the argument that Hudson plays because they need his offense, let's look at the numbers. Hudson's shots per minute played is the highest on the entire team, and he is making 43 percent of them, which is below the team's average accuracy. To be fair, some of those are three-pointers, which increases his scoring efficiency. But the fact remains that Hudson's shot-per-assist ratio (91 shots, 30 assists, counting the New Orleans loss) is more frequent than Kevin Garnett's (160 shots, 57 assists as of right now). In other words, your all-around superstar, who currently ranks among the top ten in the NBA in field goal percentage and is your obvious go-to guy whenever possible, is dishing the ball more conscientiously than one of your point guards--the one who also can't play defense! And imagine how much more of a disparity there would be between them if KG had himself available to pass to?
If you're thinking about injecting Anthony Carter into the conversation, don't waste your breath. It is by now patently obvious that, despite all his talk about defense being the priority, Dwane Casey can't afford to play AC at the expense of either Jaric or Hudson. Both Jaric and Hudson have rather sizable long-term contracts and Carter is playing for peanuts. If the situation were reversed, Carter would be playing ample minutes. The only other explanation is that Casey honestly thinks Jaric and Hudson are outplaying Carter this season, and I know he's not that stupid.
Casey's reluctance to give Carter his due was painfully obvious throughout the 3rd quarter, when the young Hornets were keying on the energy of Chris Paul and roaring back from a dozen down at the half (and 18 down earlier in the second period). It was last season all over again--a quick point guard breaking down the perimeter D. Carter could have significantly slowed, if not halted, that crucial geneation of momentum, but Casey waited until the beginning of the 4th quarter to make his move. Too late. Carter did his thing, and so the Hornets frequently switched over to Claxton, conveniently guarded by Hudson, to initiate the offense in the half-court.
When Jaric spit the bit in the first three minutes of the third quarter, Casey should have gone to Carter to bump Paul off his gathering rhythm, at least for four or five minutes or so until you have to pay homage to your salary structure and get Hudson into the game. Casey has had nothing but praise for Carter this season--he hasn't really had a choice, has he?--but when he needed to back up that talk with a meaningful substitution to bag his first-ever road win, he put his faith in fool's gold. That's one reason to hang this loss on the coach.
2. A tired Kandi.
Here's another reason. Casey wants Kandi to run the floor, rotate on defense, be a prominent option at the offensive end, and generally hustle his ass off. But when was the last time anyone can recall Kandi getting stronger, or finding his groove, the longer he was on the court? Yeah, he had a marvelous fourth quarter against Charlotte the other night, but he'd only played 35 seconds in the third quarter. He also was being guarded by power forward Emeka Okafor, who was saddled with four fouls, and the Wolves were already up 13...
But I digress. Bump Casey's fist for steadfastly maintaining that Kandi would be a factor for the Wolves this season--he has been, and the credit for that belongs to both the big guy and the coach. But don't load Kandi up with all kinds of physical responsibilities and then play him just shy of 36 minutes against the Hornets' young, athletic, front line. I saw Kandi leap out to try and block jump shots more tonight than I've seen him attempt it in two years. And that dribble and roll from the top of the key to a convincing slam in the second quarter; I've never seen Kandi do that. The guy clearly wants to give his right nut to justify Casey's faith in him.
But he ran out of gas. At halftime, the Wolves and Hornets were tied with 22 rebounds apiece. In the decisive second half, New Orleans outboarded Minnesota 27-16. KG went for more than 42 minutes and Eddie G. got a measly 7:41 worth of court time--and in the second half that PT was restricted to being the designated fouler when the Wolves were desperately hoping the Hornets would self-destruct at the free throw line.
Either the smart way or the hard way, Casey will eventually learn that Eddie Griffin is a better crunch time performer than Michael Olowokandi. That is my arrogant opinion. Hopefully Kandi will continue to overachieve beyond my skepticism, even to the point of sinking baskets and defending intelligently when he's been on the court for awhile and the game is on the line. Because I think Casey will not think kindly of Griffin until Eddie establishes a solid post game and stops jacking treys; I suspect it is already the reason we don't often see KG and EG on the court together, despite their obvious synergy on interior defense. It sure would have been fun to see what Griffin and Garnett could have done to slow down PJ Brown and David West in that 4th quarter--and Kandi could have caught a breather.
3. In search of a Number 2 scorer.
It was not as obvious as the point guard mismatch or the rebounding woes that created so many second chances for the Hornets, but another shooting disappearance by Wally Szczerbiak was culpable for this horrid defeat. Wally was 4-10 from the field and every one of those baskets was a layup. No jump shots made in 38:29 of play. And just one trip to the free throw line (he missed that shot too). No wonder the Wolves registered a putrid 32 points in the second half. Their entire offense revolved around KG on the low block and Hudson scrambling like a rasta with his head cut off.
When Szczerbiak is not making his jumpers, all kinds of negative chain reactions ensue. Teams gang up on KG down in the paint, and Casey feels obliged to give Hudson and Richie Frahm more minutes than he should at the 2 and the 3. I know this entire Three-Pointer amounts to me telling the coach what to do, but may I suggest Rashad McCants for a tad more than the 9:02 he logged? His court vision is better than Frahm's and Hudson's put together. No, he can't hit the trey very well, but no one on this team gets to the hole more effectively. He had four free throws in his nine minutes tonight, second to KG's nine trips to the line. He clearly is dying for the chance to team up with KG and he has already shown that he'll work on D and dish on offense. And, ah, he's the best chance of becoming the sort of number-two sidekick that makes Kevin Garnett glad for his pledge of loyalty to this franchise.
After McCants' strong performance against Charlotte the other night, I asked Casey where he thought Rashad's minutes would be by the end of January, early February, if he continued to make progress. "Probably about where they were tonight," [which was 24:52] the coach replied, adding his typical summation of McCants' future: "He is a going to be a good player for a long time in this league."
Well, until Sczerbiak rediscovers his identity as an outside scorer, or Hudson and/or Frahm receive a huge talent transplant, bringing McCants along slowly is a perplexing strategy. Because if you're thinking the Wolves are going to make the playoffs, consider that they are 5-5 despite a ridiculously easy schedule that has included not one single team that really made it a priority to pressure the point guard. And if you're thinking that you are going to instill discipline in McCants by limiting his minutes, consider that the people playing ahead of him at the off guard (besides the redoubtable Trenton Hassell, a worthy role model) are a designated spot-up gunner (Frahm) and a "drop it like its hot, 24/7" ball hog (Hudson).
Nothing is clearer than 20-20 hindsight, especially when it comes to evaluating your own precise prose. But at the beginning of the year, I thought that the Wolves had as good a chance of reaching the playoffs by embarking on their rebuilding project via the likes of McCants and Griffin (with a side order of go-go tempo with AC, Wally, and Mad Dog), than by riding vets like T-Hud and Kandi. After tonight, that feeling has only gotten stronger.