The Three-Pointer: No KG, No Problem
This is going to sound corny, but I still think it's true. For whatever reason, my seat this afternoon happened to be the closest in press row to the end of the Wolves' bench. After a dreadful month (check previous posts for details), Kevin Garnett was having a monster game, just one board and three dimes away from a triple-double at the end of the first half, and his boy Rashad McCants was as happy and animated as I've ever seen him over on the bench.
Then there's the lousy calls and the overblown deal with Garnett hitting a fan with an angry toss (harder than the AP report made it sound, but nothing damaging) and getting tossed himself. And the Timberwolves grit it out, turning back every Memphis challenge in what turns out to be a tense, physical second half.
But the revelation is McCants. After the Grizzlies have hacked a nine-point lead down to a digit during the first 4 and a half minutes of the fourth quarter, McCants drains a big three to give the Wolves some breath back and adds a transition layup 80 seconds later. Knowing McCants, that's not that special. But then, with five minutes to go and the Wolves up 6, Memphis wisely decides to exploit Pau Gasol's quickness against Mark Blount out on the wing. Gasol fakes out Blount, heads for the hoop, and gets absolutely clocked on a brutally hard but beautifully clean foul by none other than Rashad McCants. As Gasol touches his lips to check for blood, McCants casually strolls toward the bench for further advice, unfazed by the collision.
Next time down the floor, exact same play, exact same result vis a vis Gasol and Blount, only McCants is there on the baseline rotation before Gasol can even spin to face the hoop, grabbing the ball and forcing a jump-ball situation, which the Wolves improbably win when Marcus Banks grabs the tap and Bobby Jackson fouls him. Banks hits one of two free throws, a three-point swing, given that Gasol easily could have scored without McCants's defense. And that is the first time I can remember McCants doing an important "little thing" at crunch time to help his team win.
Here's the corny part. I don't think it is a coincidence that McCants played harder and smarter after Garnett went down. Coach Casey and Banks both said that losing their superstar gave the team extra motivation--"youngsters wanting to do well for the big brother," is the way Casey put it--but you just felt it from McCants. And that's leadership: When McCants was laying rotten egg after egg throughout December, and rumors were that coaches would sit and talk to him for extended periods, watch him make the same mistakes and come away shaking their heads, the rookies dependence on the superstar's blessing (or, not shunning) to retain his sanity became a palpable thing. This is not to put McCants in a sympathetic light, because he has underachieved too greatly and too often thus far this year. But whatever KG was doing or saying was making a huge impact on McCants, and when Garnett and the Wolves needed him this afternoon, he came up back with his most complete performance--12 points on 9 shots, two steals, two blocks, zero turnovers, and, believe it or not, decent defense--of the season.
And, parenthetically, we also saw a huge upgrade in Ricky Davis's defense, especially at crunch time when he was denying Mike Miller the ball. McCants is a rookie still finding his way; Davis has no such excuse. I don't expect him to play with the dogged all-out spirit he showed at crunchtime today, but something halfway between that and inept coverage his short attention span on D has provided Minnesota since the trade would go a long way toward shoring up this team.
2. A gentleman on the sidelines
Watching the refs make a series of what seemed to be ridiculously bad calls versus Minnesota in the third period (the fouls leading up to the KG incident were just a piece of the incompetence), I recalled Peter Weinhold's complaint a few weeks back about Casey not sticking up for his team, and found myself wishing that he'd get a technical to highlight the ineptitude taking place. But when I asked the coach after the game whether he'd considered a "strategic technical" at that point, his answer was firm.
"That philosophy doesn't work in this league," the coach replied. "I don't believe in that philosophy. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Then he went on to say that he knew and respected lead ref Bob Delaney and his crew and wouldn't do something to purposefully show them up.
I don't know if I agree with him or not--I guess if forced to choose, I do believe there is a place for strategic T's and I think they can be effective--but I appreciate that it is part and parcel of who Casey is. When Charles Barkley was ripping the Wolves earlier this season and Casey was asked what he thought about it, I remember being struck by the tact and dignity of his reply. At that time, Casey said he liked and appreciated Barkley as a person but that he "respectfully disagreed" with what Barkley was saying. And so, to have it both ways, I guess I'm "respectfully disagreeing" with Casey's take on earning technicals.
3. Banks is da man...unless the roulette wheel changes again.
Today was the first time Marcus Banks was the Wolves' starting point guard. It won't be the last. Casey's direct postgame quote was, "Marcus Banks is going to be our starting point guard until he plays his way out of it, and right now he's doing an excellent job." Now if the Wolves can only sign him at the end of the season.