The Three-Pointer: Casey Lays An Egg
1. Second guessing--do the figures lie?
The Wolves got waxed tonight against Phoenix, 103-89, for their sixth loss in 7 games. I believe it was Dwane Casey's worst coaching performance of the season. I'm sure it's coincidence more than design, but Casey's substitution patterns have shown an annoying correlation between a player's minutes and the size of his paycheck. And tonight it bit this team in the ass.
For the past couple of games, the coach has been grousing about not having a player step up and become that third scoring option the team so obviously craves behind KG and Wally Szczerbiak. Meanwhile, he continues to jerk his most talented one-on-one offensive threat, Rashad McCants, on a tight leash.
I'll grant McCants's critics everything: his defensive effort is sporadic at best; he occasionally pouts and subtly shows up his teammates when he isn't getting the ball; his shot selection is still way unrefined; and he simply doesn't seem to concentrate on the court every now and then. He can also be sullen and diffident with reporters, if you want to pile it on. Okay?
But here's what else we know: Rashad McCants can get his own shot better than anyone on the team, including Garnett and Wally. There were at least two games this year where McCants did everything "right"--didn't shoot much, stuck to his man, hustled diligently, and had a good attitude--and it didn't make any difference in his chronic pine time in the second half. Casey is clearly trying to send a message that McCants needs to shape up or he won't play. But it has been almost all stick and no carrot. Meanwhile, the offense stagnates, especially at crunch time, when everyone knows an increasingly weary Garnett and Szczerbiak are the team's only viable options. Remember the loss in Philly? Or Friday night's 13 point fourth quarter in the home loss to Portland?
Better yet, let's look at tonight's tilt--89 points against a porous Suns defense. Once again, McCants is accorded that glorious spot at the onset of the second quarter, perfectly in sync with the resting of superstar Kevin Garnett. The Wolves are down 4, 20-24. Nine minutes and three seconds later, McCants leaves with the Wolves up by a point, having outscored the Suns 16-10 during that time. Yes, for 2:27 of that time Phoenix was without the wondrous Steve Nash. Yes, McCants frequently lost his man, getting rubbed off on picks and burned by bursts of movement when his head was turned. Yes, he was only one of four from the field, including a wide-open miss on a weakside three-pointer that he needs to sink. And yes, the Wolves were frequently in scramble mode covering for McCants.
But that's still 11 Phoenix points in the 9 minutes McCants played. Because of that stretch, Phoenix had its poorest shooting, lowest-scoring quarter of the game, hitting 35 percent from the field (7-20) and registering 21 points, via 6 assists versus 3 turnovers. The man McCants was primarily guarding, Raja Bell, went 2-6. In the 3rd quarter, when McCants rode the pine, Phoenix shot 71 percent (12-17) and racking up 35 points on 8 assists and zero turnovers. Raja Bell played the entire third period and went 2-3 from the field while picking up three of his four assists for the game in the period. Even if you say that McCants had nothing to do Phoenix's drought while he was on the floor (which is in fact fairly accurate), you can hardly argue that he would have hurt the Wolves' defensive effort in the dreadful third period. Meanwhile, wouldn't it be nice to see what the kid can do with extended minutes over a 5-10 game span? Maybe we'd get a glimpse of that vital but still-missing third offensive option that has the Wolves in the lower third of the league in scoring and just barely above .500 despite a defense that statistically ranks among the top five in the NBA.
The other benefit to playing McCants more tonight would have been less floor time for Marko Jaric and Richie Frahm. Jaric simply stunk the joint out. He was a step slow physically and two steps behind mentally, mailing in a performance that rivals his collapse in Oklahoma City versus Chris Paul and the Hornets for ineptitude. Steve Nash routinely blew by him when he played the point. Boris Diaw abused him in the low block. Raja Bell likewise seemingly could do what he wanted when Jaric was on him. A few minutes into the third quarter, an obviously furious Kevin Garnett let loose a torrent of curses in Jaric's direction as the team was setting up to defend an out of bounds play. If looks could kill, KG would have smote Marko into powder. The point guard led the Wolves with 6 assists, but sank just one of seven shots and, as mentioned, played horrible D for nearly every second of his 28:17 of playing time, during which the Wolves were minus 23!
You've heard my broken record on Richie Frahm. His role on the team is as a long-range scorer. Six weeks ago he had converted half of his 26 three-point attempts, and was 19-33 from the field overall. Since then, he has made just one of his last 16 treys and is 5-22 overall. Heading into tonight's game he was averaging 10.3 minutes per contest, just a shade less than McCants' average of 11.2 minutes.
After the Portland game, I asked Casey if he'd considered playing McCants in the 4th quarter as players not named Garnett were going 3-14 while Ruben Patterson locked down Szczerbiak. He said he didn't give it a thought. Tonight I prefaced my comment by saying that you can do anything with figures, and then noted that the Wolves were plus-5 in the nine minutes McCants was on the floor. Casey replied that you can indeed do anything with figures (and to back him up I'll note here that McCants has the worst plus-minus of anyone on the roster besides Dupree), adding that he didn't think anyone could say McCants was a factor in whether the team won or lost tonight. But less than a minute later, he repeated his plaint: "I just think offensively we need one more guy..."
2. More second guessing--AC on the MVP?
On the surface, this would seem to be a poor time to renew my advocacy for Anthony Carter to get more playing time. If the Wolves defense is solid and a third scorer is the priority, why bring up a guy who is shooting below 40 percent, and whose only attempt tonight sailed well wide of the rim and caromed off the backboard?
But there are times when you need a stopper on the perimeter. Often that can be Jaric, but as mentioned earlier, he was sleepwalking tonight. The Wolves had some luck switching KG out to guard Nash on the high-post pick-and-rolls, but Phoenix inevitably found their quick tweeners in the low block who were being guarded by the smaller dudes on the switch--that's one large reason why Boris Diaw had 31 points.
Minnesota was down 10 to begin the final period, and so Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni decided to rest the reigning MVP, Steve Nash, for a minute or two. A mere 107 seconds later, the Wolves had sliced the lead to three, 77-80, prompting D'Antoni to hurriedly call timeout and get Nash back in the game. And that's when Casey should have countered with AC.
Believe it or not, this isn't hindsight. Phoenix's Game Notes reveal that reserve guard Eddie House has been dubbed "4th quarter Eddie" because six times in the Suns' first 25 games he has scored at least 8 points in the final period (Phoenix is 5-1 when that happens). Reading that before the opening tip, I had hoped Casey would deploy Carter on either Nash or House at crunch time if the game were close.
So Nash joins House in the backcourt with the Suns still up 3 and a little over 10 minutes left to play. Over the next 3 and a half minutes, Phoenix goes on a 13-0 run, with Nash dishing for three baskets and House hitting two long jumpers (one a trey). Game over. Ironically, Casey subs Carter in for Jaric about two minutes later with Phoenix still up 14. During the next 23 seconds, AC helps harass Nash into a pair of turnovers.
After the Portland game, when I asked Szczerbiak why he'd only gotten one shot in his team's 13-point 4th quarter, he said Portland had locked down on him with Ruben Patterson. He then mentioned that he and KG were talking about how when the Wolves go with the smaller lineup (meaning the triple point guard set of Jaric, T-Hud, and Carter), it gives opponents trouble because they don't know who to guard. Later, when I asked KG if he thought McCants might have helped in the 4th quarter, he replied, "Shadee can definitely come in and give us some energy," then added without prompting, "AC comes in and gives us energy." (Carter was a DNP-CD versus Portland.)
I'm not trying to be a jackass, and in fact think that on balance Casey is doing a pretty good job thus far. But the fact remains that guys I think should be getting more minutes--including McCants, Carter, and Eddie Griffin--have instead seen their time cut back. Meanwhile the Wolves have dropped six out of seven. And yes, I know that Griffin has been almost shockingly ineffective the past five games or so, to the point where you hope he hasn't been revisited by clinical depression or relapsed into other bad habits from before (there is no evidence besides his lousy play to indicate he has, by the way). But I repeat: The best way for this team to contend for a playoff spot is to also be rebuilding, providing minutes for young kids with enormous upside, Griffin and McCants foremost among them.
3. Burning out the forwards
One of the smart things Kevin McHale did last season when he took over the coaching reins from Flip Saunders was work hard to reduce minutes for Kevin Garnett. Casey's substitution mishaps tonight include the marathon minutes accorded both KG, who played 43:33, and Szczerbiak, who sat for a grand total of 8 seconds at the conclusion of the first half.
The Wolves' front line has recently been depleted by injuries. Michael Olowokandi was declared inactive tonight due to bursitis in his right elbow. And Mark Madsen hurt his back taking a charge in the first quarter. That said, there's no excuse for playing Szczerbiak 47:52 against anybody, let alone Phoenix, with primary responsibility for guarding Shawn Marion much of that time. Lest we forget, Wally has a history of foot and toe problems and runs heavy like a Clydesdale.
I empathize with Casey's desire to get the Wolves back on their winning ways. But for most of the 3rd and 4th quarters, Phoenix had a double-digit lead. Not resting either Wally or KG at all the entire second half is pound-foolish, especially with Griffin logging a mere 10:04 and Seattle, another run-and-gun team that likes to spread the floor, coming in on Wednesday night. Don't be surprised if either KG or Wally are missing a little lift on the jumpers and defensive rotations versus the Sonics.