The Three-Pointer: Finish or Be Finished

1. Competence or character?
It is tough to overestimate how nasty Sunday's last-second home loss to Philadelphia was to the psyche of this Timberwolves team, who blew a 19-point lead with 14 minutes left to play. Normally the last one out of the showers while the daily beat writers with deadlines grit their teeth, Kevin Garnett was long gone before the media hit the lockers--a bad sign. In his postgame press conference, Coach Dwane Casey went into rote mediation mode, yet again telling us how hard his team played. Then he was compelled to add, "These guys are hurting... I'm just as proud of these guys as anyone...if you want to blame anyone, blame me."

Sorry coach, there's too much blame for just one guy to absorb. But since you prefer to be the first one scrutinized, what are we to make of the fact that under Flip Saunders, Minnesota compiled a gaudy 64-39 record in "one-possession" games (those decided by three points or less) since the beginning of the 1996-97 season, but since you took over 38 games ago, your one-possession mark is 0-6? Or that the Wolves have squandered leads of 9 points or more five times in the past ten games? You invariably call a timeout when the score is tight and there is less than a minute left in the quarter, half, or ballgame; so why is the execution out of those timeouts so unsuccessful? Answers to those questions shouldn't come close to limiting the blame to you, of course, but the numbers are what they are and you are the one in charge of the chalkboard, the clock, and the substitution patterns.

Let me offer up a couple of people Flip could call upon the past two years who are no longer on the roster: Sam Cassell and Fred Hoiberg. How many times did we watch Cassell hit a crunch-time shot and then swagger back down the court pretending to swing a pair of enormous balls? How many times did we see Hoiberg make the right inbounds pass, move to the right open spot to receive the ball, set the right pick to free up the shooter, box out the right man to prevent a putback, and bail out a floor-general teammate facing defensive pressure by rushing over to get the ball and then give it right back? Cassell was the Timberwolves second-best player two years ago; Hoiberg was the Wolves second-best player last year. And both thrived in the fourth quarter.

But to get Sammy's crunch-time heroics this year would have required enduring his nonstop bitching, backbiting, dissension-sewing complaints about his contract. (You think the bountiful joy and all-around improvement in Wally Szczerbiak's game isn't at least partially related to Cassell's absence?) He needed to go, no matter how much he is missed down the stretch right now. And while the decision to scrimp on $1.7 million by dumping Hoiberg from the roster might look pennywise, pound-foolish if Freddie opts to play for another team soon, the guy will set an NBA precedent by performing with a pacemaker if and when he returns, so ripping owner Glen Taylor is 20-20 hindsight with the latest in laser surgery (how's that for a tortured metaphor?).

Many Wolves fans will argue that this team simply isn't talented enough to pull out the close ones; that Casey's necessary reliance on KG and Wally in the game's first 45 minutes spends too much of their resources for the final 3. The team's 0-3 record in overtime games this year, after going 26-16 in overtime over the last nine years Flip was here, supports that theory. But I think talent matters most in blowouts. When the Wolves get schooled by obviously superior teams from Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, or Phoenix, that's a core competence gap. Yet all but one of the team's one-possession losses this season have been to mediocre opponents whose overall talent is very comparable to Minnesota's--Philadelphia (twice), Sacramento, Milwaukee, and the Clippers. Meanwhile, just this past week, the team struggled mightily to hold off a lousy Knicks team, nearly blew the game at home against an Indiana squad without Artest, O'Neal, retired Reggie Miller, and a Jamaal Tinsley at full strength, and folded their tents versus a Celtics team more than ten games below .500.

By contrast, the last time the Wolves successfully came back from a double-digit deficit was December 7, against a callow Portland team--their fourth such resurgence in the team's first eight games. Is the reason for this turnaround in spunk sapped endurance from deficit talent, or a lack of confidence and resolve stemming from increasingly repeated failures? Obviously both. The relationship between competence and character is a chicken-or-the-egg equation, of course. But this remains one of the league's highest-paid rosters, and it is time for everyone to step up. As Wally Szczerbiak--one of the precious few Timberwolves to hang around and face the music after yesterday's game--said when it was noted that he and KG combined for only three shots in the 4th quarter: "It doesn't matter who gets the shots...We don't need any agendas...It is up to the players to defend a 19-point lead."

That means Szczerbiak can't revert to the silly turnovers that occasionally plague this squad at crunch time (he had two--to go with his measley two shots--in the fourth quarter Sunday). It means KG has to beat back the same demons that haunted him before Cassell and Spree arrived, when it was argued that he was too unselfish (meaning perhaps not sufficiently courageous) to seize control at the finish. (He had a pair of assists versus just one woefully short short on Sunday.) And it means there is room at the table for a player to seize a bigger role for himself on this ballclub, a subject we'll address in the silver linings later in this post.

As we come upon the midpoint of the season and the patterns of play are more reliably established, the choice between rebuilding and contending is becoming particularly stark. Initially, I thought it would be a best of both worlds type of situation; that the best way for this team to contend was to rebuild. Specifically, I figured that folks like 23-year old Eddie Griffin and rookie Rashad McCants would help crystallize this team in the present while paving its course for the future. Griffin has ratified that faith. But McCants is becoming more and more of a collossal bust with each succeeding game. The Timberwolves are a minus-87 in points versus their opponents in the 405 minutes McCants has logged this year; no other player is worse than minus-36. His field goal percentage is below 40, and he commits fouls at a rate that would disqualify him every 39 minutes. Even spotting him in the 2nd quarter for 5-10 minutes, Casey is almost invariably conceding a 4-5 point advantage to his opponents during that stretch. When you're record in close game is as abysmal as Minnesota's has been, that's a poison pill masquerading as a vitamin.

2. The X factor
It I had to pick a player upon whom the fortunes of this season rest, it would be Marko Jaric. By the numbers, Jaric has been a resoundign success, leading the team in plus/minus (at plus-154!), and ranking among the top 12 in the NBA in steals per game (1.7). But does anyone have confidence in this guy with the game on the line? In November and December, when Jaric hit some big jumpers to help decide games, and buttressed it with some staunch defense (most notably against Lebron James in Cleveland), the answer would have been a hearty yeah. But even in those early months, there were some horrible blips--the debacle in Oklahoma City, where rookie Chris Paul embarrassed Marko right out of the game, the New Year's tilt in Miami, when it appeared Marko was working uphill against a nasty hangover, are two that come to mind--to indicate that you didn't want to mortgage the future of the franchise on Jaric just yet. Except in some sense, the Wolves already have; trading Cassell and a number-one pick (lottery protected but still an egregious concession) for Marko after working a sign-and-trade agreement that put Jaric on the roster longer than KG, Wally, or anyone else on the team.

In recent weeks, Wolves fans have been subjected to the disconcerting spectacle of Garnett blasting Jaric with full-bore screaming fits at least every three or four games. The hopeful spin on this is that KG has sussed out that Jaric is thick-skinned enough to be deployed as an outlet for his overall exhortations to the entire squad. More likely, Garnett is simply venting, furious that Jaric has frequent lapses in attention span and willpower.

There is a back-handed compliment in this. You don't vent on Troy Hudson for jacking up shots without a conscience, or Anthony Carter for turning the ball over due to excess exuberance, because the virtue and the vice are so closely alligned. Huddy can get you a bundle of points when he's on, and AC's defensive intensity and push the ball pace causes as many opponent miscues as he commits. It's pretty clear that neither of these two are going to change much, for better or worse. But it's tantalyzing to consider what Jaric could be if he got his shit together, and to somebody as perceptive and industrious as KG, that wasted potential must be enormously aggravating.

Flash back to Sunday's game. What better way to try and grind down Allen Iverson, the Energizer Bunny, than for the 6-7 to take him to the hole, hard and strong, as often as possible? Sure enough, in the first two minutes, Marko drives and scores, kicks to Wally for a successful J, and executes a steal for another driving layup. In the next five minutes, he drives twice, once for his third layup and another for a dish-off that Eddie Griffin slams through the hoop. When Jaric leaves the game with 2:12 left in the 1st quarter, he's made all three of his shots (all layups, reversing his year-long trend as a shaky finisher) and dished for two dimes as the Wolves amassed a 20-9 lead.

For the rest of the game he is 4-16 from the field, including two more layups, but three other occasions when center Stephen Hunter ate his lunch with blocks in the paint. Worse, from the time Jaric lays the ball in with a minute left in the 3rd period to boost the Wolves lead to 67-50, he shoots six times (making two) with no assists while Minnesota's star deadeye scorers Garnett and Szczerbiak total just three shot attempts. And in the frantic final minute of the game, with Minnesota in make-or-break possessions in the half-court set, Casey twice calls for KG to get the ball on the pick and roll. The first time, even after Iverson falls down, Jaric's weak pass to Garnett is picked off. Then, with the score still tied, Jaric again can't get the ball to the superstar with arguably the largest target area (if you add wingspan plus height plus sureness of hands plus quickness of movement) in the NBA, and opts instead for an open jumper along the baseline that clanks off the rim. Setting the stage for Philly's look-what-I-found putback to end the game.

Does anybody really need to guess what was uppermost in KG's mind as he bolted out of the building?

In less than half a season, I've run hot and cold on Marko Jaric more than any Timberwolf player in my decade-plus time covering this franchise. And I still think if he can somehow straighten out his game and sustain some confidence and consistency down the stretch this spring, the Wolves will make the playoffs, regardless of what McCants does or doesn't do to this team.

3. Silver linings
I wish circumstances allowed me more time and space, but this is already a marathon three-pointer and after the Philly debacle, the clouds outweigh the silver linings. (My apologies for not posting at least a nominal, abridged 3-P after the Boston and Indiana games so posters could have at it in this space without me.) That said, Wolves fans have reason to feel good about the recent performances of Trenton Hassell and Eddie Griffin.

Hassell is certainly making my friend David Brauer look smart for touting him as a viable third scoring option on this team. In the 4th quarter against Philadelphia, Hassell had his finest stint as an offensive force for the franchise, posting up for four baskets in a four-minute span after Philly had whittled the lead down to one with 8:20 left to play. Hassell has proven adept at banking the up-and-under layup and spinning across the lane with a six-foot bunny jumper, both signature moves emanating from the left block in the low post. Best of all, he's got his eyes open, finding Griffin on interior passes and kicking it out to Wally or Garnett for open looks. The upgrade in his offense more than compensates for the slight fatigue (resulting in a uptick in his personal fouls) he shows on defense. Given that Hassell is a natural off-guard, and that Jaric plays best when he swings between the point-guard and off-guard position, the argument for Minnesota cutting its losses and trading McCants now, before his value plummets even further, is pretty beguiling. I'm not saying I'd necessarily pull that trigger, but neither would I malign those who'd take that option seriously.

Last but not least, hats off to Eddie Griffin for dumping the last shovel-full of dirt on the Minnesota tenure of Michael Olowokandi. Yes, Griffin can be manhandled inside, even from an untested mediocrity like Indiana's David Harrison, or Boston's jumping-jack youngsters Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. Yes, Griffin is probably the most inconsistent performer among the Wolves' top six players; Jaric is a beacon of stability by comparison. And yes, Griffin's accuracy and shot selection are dicey, his on-man defense sporadic, and his personality affable but extremely shy.

Consider the weight at the other end of the abacus. Griffin will be 24 on May 30. He is in his second month of his career playing the low-post pivot position. In the past two games, the first two times that Casey has provided him with vital-starter's minutes (more than 38 per contest), Griffin has gone 13-20 from the field, with 24 rebounds and 7 blocks. He is that rarest of commodities on this Wolves' team, a salary bargain at little more than $2 million per year. And in two years, the option of whether he wants to stay in Minnesota or not is his, not the team's. So let's not jerk him around with inexplicable pine time and complaints about his consistency when the options are the oafish Kandi man and the game but often-overmatch Mark Madsen. With Eddie Griffin, at least, rebuilding and contending are still the same process.



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