The Three-Pointer: A Win Before The Break
1. What a concept: Team defense
For the first time in nearly a month--I peg it to January 20 when they beat Indiana 90-85--the Wolves won a game on the strength of their defense. They utilized more full-court pressure than at any time this season, and played a very tough, physical style of the sort opponents once deployed to take down Minnesota back in their Brandon-Rasho-KG softness days.
When Ricky Davis and Trenton Hassell can outscore Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, you know good things are going to happen. Because I've been ripping his defense pretty much nonstop since he arrived, special kudos go to Ricky Davis, not because he was a star on D, but because he played his customary strong game on offense--25 points, 5 assists--and hustled, followed the schemes, and rarely committed the lapses that pockmarked his play of late at the other end of the court.
The plan was to rotate hard into double teams on Ray Allen whenever he touched the ball, and it worked very well. Allen had 23 on 10-19 from the field, but didn't dish for a single assist or attempt a single free throw (the latter stat had Seattle interim coach Bob Hill hopping mad, but the whistle belongs to the more aggressive team and tonight it was Minnesota). According to Trenton Hassell, the plan was for him and Davis to switch on Allen and Lewis whenever appropriate, which is what they did in the first half, when Allen had 14 and Lewis just 2, on 1-4 shooting. In the second half, Hassell told Davis he'd take Allen everywhere, with good results. Along with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen is someone Trenton just seems to defend well, and although he had plenty of help, let the record show that in the second half, Hassell matched Allen's 9-point production and added three dimes besides. Meanwhile, Davis shut out a lethargic Lewis from the field, reducing him to 6-6 from the line.
Hassell and Davis are the top two salutes, but another tip of the cap belongs to Dwane Casey for a good scheme. Now, it is true that Casey knows the Sonics personnel better than anyone on the Sonics current bench now that both Nate McMillan and Bob Weiss are gone, and it is no coincidence that two of the past three wins for this squad have been familiarity-related, if you count the ex-Celts trouncing Boston a couple weeks back.
But the bottom line is that Casey had his troops swarming and active--on the border of being chaotic, which oddly enough seems to be one of the ways this team gets itself in rhythm. Seattle is a team that averages 102 points per game (they also give up 107 on average, which is why the Wolves 102 point performance is not that noteworthy); in addition, Minnesota turned the ball over a whopping 20 times, resulting in 26 points off of turnovers (minus-12 compared to their 14 points off Seattle's 20 turnovres), which means that the regular half court D (expanded to full court pressure) was that much more effective in limiting the Sonics to just 92 overall.
2. The McCants yo-yo
Now that Marko Jaric has been exiled to the hind forest of nether oblivion, the player who yanks my hate-love meter most is the gifted, taciturn rookie, Rashad McCants. Casey shrewdly went out of his way to cite him for some postgame praise tonight. First of all, McCants is no longer playing like it's him and nine other guys on the court--or, if he's in a generous mood, him, KG, and eight other guys. He understands there are actual teammates with their own skill sets and egos, actual plays and assignments to follow, and actual defenders with NBA-quality athleticism trying to stop him. I think part of it is that he has weathered the blizzard, the upgrade and synergy of the pace and the physicality that all but the elite rookies must adapt to. Rather than just fending with coping, he's beginning to have court vision with perspective, at both ends of the court. His shot selection tonight was very good, and consequently he was getting good dishes from his teammates. He ran the floor well and found his man on defense as often as he lost him--sincerely, that's progress. And the reward is that Rashad is starting to sniff more quality minutes, beyond the second quarter ghetto. He was a respectable minus-2 in 16:03 tonight, including plus-4 in his 5:03 stint in the 4th quarter.
There was also one play where Marcus Banks fired the ball toward him and it sailed into the crowd instead. McCants made very little effort to reach out and snag it, and probably would have been unsuccessful if he tried. But Banks obviously made a face, or maybe even said something, because McCants made a "I can't believe you think I could have gotten that pass" look that was at once utterly exasperated and totally childish. It's one of those tiny things that you see out of McCants on a fairly regular basis. Do they mean anything? That he's young, definitely. That he's a head case, only as supporting evidence, and the main evidence had better be compelling.
I'm content to admit I don't really have a clue about what makes McCants tick, and I pride myself on parsing rebels, or otherwise against-the-grain players. But I am pretty sure that the negatives don't fuel the positives; that if McCants decided to buckle down and subsume himself to the team game, it wouldn't curb his incredible talent to the point of negation. At the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, if the kid gets his head screwed on straight, I think he really has a chance to be very very good; but otherwise, the sort of ongoing enigma who winning franchises like San Antonio and Detroit pride themselves on weeding out.
3. Let's feed the big man outside
No, not KG, who can get his own shot plenty well, and did a superb job of dishing out of double and triple teams. If this were hockey, where more than one assist is allowed, Garnett would have had a dozen dimes instead of a paltry two; over and over he made the pass that made the pass that made the basket possible.
But I'm talking about Mark Blount, who rose up and hit a 20-footer with KG on the bench and the Wolves down 8 with 2:09 left in the first period; keying a 8-0 run that tied the score at the buzzer. It was the first time in a long while I remember Blount sticking a shot like a shooting guard, and when he first arrived, it was pretty obvious that that was his primary attribute. I understand that the plan tonight was to attack the basket, and the Wolves did go the line 35 times as a reward for following that edict. Blount had four of those free throws, along with 8 boards in 27 minutes. But it would be nice to see him free up space in the paint by luring big men out with that smooth jumper.
And while we're at it--consider this a bonus 4th point--the other two ex-Celts also had fine nights. Justin Reed chipped in a solid 10:27 in which he was plus-2, and Marcus Banks split time almost exactly with Anthony Carter at the point, but finished plus-10 in his 24:02 versus AC's break-even 23:58.