The Three-Pointer: Flip's Revenge
1. Child is father to the man
I remember when Kevin McHale promoted Flip Saunders back in 1995, adding coach to the title of general manager in Flip's duties. At the time it felt like collegiate cronyism; the old Gopher big man tapping his point guard for the duties. And on a then-chronically failed franchise where both the original and the current (then as now) owner tapped their son-in-law for an important executive position (Bob Stein for Marv Wolfenson, and Rob Moor for Glen Taylor), cronyism, a cousin of nepotism, seemed like business as usual.
Sam Mitchell was angry that Bill Blair had been canned so early in the season. It was mid-December, I think; before Christmas at any rate. Mitchell had really liked Blair, an assistant for Mitchell's favorite coach, Larry Brown, when they were all in Indiana. But after two practices with Flip, I remember Mitchell, a man loath to ever admit he's wrong, but someone who can't ever bullshit with a straight face and thus decides to just be either totally honest or transparently bullshitting, grudgingly giving it up to Flip. "So, how is your new coach?" I asked in a conspiratorial, give-me-something juicy tone, expecting him to either cut Flip down and rave about him so lavishly I knew he was bullshitting. "I'll tell you," Sam said, throwing his stuff into a kit bag and then turning to face me head-on. "The dude knows what he's doing. I'm not going to say I was surprised. But the dude knows what he's doing."
Almost ten years later, McHale canned Flip, and brought in someone even closer to his heart and basketball philosophy to coach the team--himself. Tonight was the first time Saunders returned to the Target Center. The fans gave him a loud ovation that would have been longer if the PA announcer hadn't quickly launched into Pistons player introductions. And when the game was over, the Pistons had won, 107-83, in a game that wasn't that close.
At the bank of media tables, there was some buzz about Saunders constantly looking in the direction of where Kevin McHale sits in the stands; especially after Detroit had blown out the Wolves 33-13 in the 3rd quarter and choruses of "Fire McHale!" could be heard around the arena. I'm thinking it might be a manifestation of that Tourette's Syndrome-like tic that came and went with Flip, that Rodney Dangerfield collar-too-tight yank of his neck, which turns his head to the left. But it is true that in today's Strib, beat writer Steve Aschburner quoted Saunders saying that McHale's counterpart in Detroit, Joe Dumars, never talks about what it was like when he used to play, because he is looking at the future, not the past. It was a succinct and fairly devastating critique of McHale, the Dana Carvey-like grumpy old man of "the way it used to be" in basketball.
So after the game, as Flip is getting the rock star treatment from an adoring media throng from two cities--the Detroit press riding the swerve of Flip's 34-5 run to begin the season, and the dozens of Minnesota folks who have all had at least one or two memorably cordial moments with Flip during his long tenure here and want to parlay that with a contact-high whiff of his victorious vindication--when KFAN's Dan Barreiro asks him about constantly looking in McHale's direction. "I was looking for my wife," Flip replied. Barreiro stares him down, thinking its bullshit, and Flip weakly explains that it is her first road trip of the season and an emotional night for her as well, and then just claps Barreiro on the shoulder. On this night, Flip can't bullshit any better than Sam Mitchell.
But the dude certainly knows what he's doing.
2. Snuffed out.
It's not enough that Detroit has a far superior team in terms of talent, experience, character, and momentum right now; they also happen to match up extremely well with the Wolves. The three players who have defended KG best over the course of his career are Clifford Robinson, Antonio McDyess, and Rasheed Wallace. Robinson is now on his last legs, if not entirely out of the league. The other two are Pistons. McDyess likewise is not the player he used to be. But 'Sheed is long, fiercely competitive, and has teammates he trusts implicitly like all-NBA defensive stalwart Ben Wallace, for example, who allow him to body up Garnett aggressively, knowing that the other Wallace and other members of the cavalry will rotate if Garnett gets past him. Consequently, KG got his 20 and 10 (21 and 10, to be exact), but he struggled hard to get them, with 24 shots, just a single free throw, and, most telling, one measly assist.
Meanwhile, Tayshaun Prince was taking Wally Szczerbiak, the Wolves only other bona fide scoring option, totally out of his game. The kind way to say it would be that Wally didn't force anything--he had just one turnover, dished for three assists, attempted six free throws, and tried only eight shots. But the way the Wolves are currently put together, any team that limits Szczerbiak to eight field goal attempts is almost certain to win the game. Asked if Detroit did anything special defending a player whose tendencies he knows so well, Saunders praised Prince's stellar performance and then did allow that the Pistons were overplaying Wally to his right, a natural thing for the long-limbed, left-handed Prince to do.
As for the bouncing Marko meter, it dipped downward tonight, with one field goal (in six attempts), two assists and five turnovers.
3. A class act and an annoying facade.
Coach Dwane Casey isn't going to rip his players in public. He hasn't ever done it, to my knowledge, and these tough times are, if anything, forcing him the other way, into heartfelt declarations about how much he likes his team and is acknowledging "how hard they play."
Wolves-bashers are going to be besotted with venom over the next two weeks. They tackle a brutally tough (on defense, anyway) Memphis team on the road tomorrow (Wednesday) night, then do the Texas two-step to Houston and San Antone before coming home to face Boston Monday night--their only home game until February 8. After Boston it is back on the road to Detroit, Portland, Golden State, and Phoenix, then back to Target Center for Lebron and the Cavs. Yikes. Losing six of their next nine games would be almost respectable, or at least expected.
Which brings me back to Casey's steadfast loyalty to his troops. It's consistent with his entire demeanor, which is impeccably classy, disciplined, and respectful. But it is also a facade--he's not frustrated with the slew of bullshit flaws, tendencies, inconsistencies, confusions, and laziness that riddle his ballclub?
After tonight's game I listened to him go on about the effort of his squad and how they fought hard in the first half and then the effect of their disheartening loss to Philly on Sunday got the best of them and he was "a little disappointed" with the way they got blown out in the second half. And there were elements of what he said that were true. It wasn't horrible defense that enabled Chauncey Billups to erupt for 24 points in the second half. Billups just caught fire and started aborting pick and rolls by simply bombing from well beyond the three-point line. Wolves fans have seen this before--Chauncey dropped 24 points on Dallas in a *single quarter* back in February of '02. But don't tell me that a team that just got pasted by 24 points--it would have been 34 if not for extended garbage time--is just like every other NBA team in that it "is going to have one of those games from time to time, where we get taken to the woodshed."
So I asked him what he considered the biggest flaw on this team to be; the thing he thinks he most needs to fix. The confidence level, he answered. Or non-answered. So I tried a different tack and noted that he keeps saying his team plays hard. But they are now a game under .500, so if they really are playing hard, that must mean the talent level isn't that high. "That is not what I said. I didn't say that," Casey said, not so much in anger but in an effort to just stop this line of inquiry. "I like my team in that locker room and I'll go to war with them every game we have."
Classy. And annoying.