The Three-Pointer: Another Quality Win
1. Boxing out.
At the end of the first half of tonight's Wolves-Heat game, Minnesota was getting annihilated on the boards, grabbing just 11 defensive rebounds to Miami's 10 offensive rebounds, the primary reason why the Heat held a whopping 17-2 edge in second-chance points, more than the difference in their 57-50 lead. In the second half, after pretty much breaking even corralling caroms off their defensive glass, Minnesota outrebounded Miami 6-to-1 (18 defensive rebounds to 3 offensive rebounds for the Heat), and outscored them in second-chance points by 7 to 3. In a game where Shaquille O'Neal was a late scratch, sealing off those additional opportunities by boxing out on the boards was the difference in the game, won by the Wolves 100-96.
One of the difference-makers in this regard was an unlikely source--Ricky Davis. Now Davis rarely looks as good on the court, or in his team's final score, as he does on the stat sheet, but tonight was easily his best performance as a Timberwolf. His 6 defensive rebounds in the second half were behind only KG's 7, and twice as many as anyone else, including Mark Blount, who grabbed just one in 14:46 second half minutes and two in 24:48 overall. Davis had four assists in the first quarter, 10 points on 3-4 FG in the second quarter, 4 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists in the game-turning third period when Minnesota outscored the Heat 32-13, and a team-high 7 points in the final stanza. Coach Dwane Casey wisely chose to hound Heat star Dwyane Wade primarily with Trenton Hassell (who sprained his ankle five minutes into the third quarter and didn't return) and Marko Jaric. But Davis's final line--26 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists--is made more impressive by involving his teammates early, stepping up in crunch time, and grabbing rebounds in the second half after that clearly had been the team's achilles heel in the first half.
2. KG + crunch time + foul line = victory.
If only the equation for winning were that simple. Still, it certainly bears noting that Kevin Garnett has now shot 15 free throws, and sunk 14 of them, in the past two 4th quarters, both of them relatively tight Timberwolves triumphs.
After that winless six-game road trip, KG says he had a talk with himself. "We've got this rap of not coming out with energy," he said of his team's frequent collapses (Minnesota was ahead at halftime in all six of those road games). "One of the things I'm going to do is be more aggressive in the 4th quarter." I reminded him of those words after tonight's game and asked if it could continue on the road, where the squad is something like 3-18 over the past three months.
"Yeah, but it's important...I've never experienced getting the ball to be so difficult," he replied. Knowing that Casey had called a play for him with 34 seconds left and the Wolves up by 2--a play where he never touched the rock and Mark Blount missed a jumper with the shot clock expiring--I asked him whether it was inexperience from his teammates or other teams guarding him so completely. Without answering directly, he said it was a basketball thing; that when the play is called a certain way, the players try to execute just that way, which often doesn't and can't happen. "If they are pushing me left, they will still try and run the play to the right," is one of the sentences he used by way of example. Translation: It is inexperience.
Two other times Garnett called for significant personnel changes next season. First he mentioned that "this team doesn't have the chemistry to finish out games," not saying it in a blaming way, and adding helpfully that it was "because we don't know each other that well." When a reporter asked if a training camp with all these new players would make a difference, KG responded, "Absolutely. But you've got to add some pieces to it." And later, referring to personnel, he said, very matter-of-factly and without rancor, "There is going to have to be some differences."
Good luck. There is a hell of a lot of salary tied up for a long, long time--and we're not talking about the dough KG earns every penny of. Who wants Blount, Jaric, and Hudson, who will collectively be drawing $21,715,000 in the 2009-10 season, *after* the contract of the then-33 year Garnett has expired? And between now and then we will fork over two first-round draft picks.
3. Liking McCants
When Garnett hit a 23-foot shot just before the third-period buzzer to punctuate that 32-13 period, boosting the Wolves to a 82-70 lead, he moved through his congratulating teammates toward the bench, bumping fists with every one. But just before he was to sit down, he gave an extra-hard fist bump to Rashad McCants. It is one of those minor things that connotes a lot.
The superstar and the rookie have a special relationship. McCants was whistled for a flagrant foul for taking down Wade in the final minute of the first period. The Heat, especially veteran Gary Payton, took it personally and blistered McCants in the second half. Midway through the 4th quarter, McCants and Payton nearly came to blows and had to be separated, both earning technicals. Garnett was the one who led McCants away. Asked about it later, KG replied that it was "just two warriors, going at it."
I remember a time when Wally Szcerbiak and Juwan Howard got in a scrap early in Szczerbiak's career. KG was asked about it in almost the same way as the McCants-Payton thing came up tonight, and replied something to the effect that "Wally has a way of getting on people's nerves sometimes." Knowing how much respect he has for Gary Payton, rhetorically putting McCants as Payton's equal in terms of "two warriors," was a high compliment. All the more reason why McCants must continue to be groomed with significant minutes. Just not on nights when Ricky Davis goes off for 26-7-10.