The Three-Pointer: Unplugged
1. Bench is a bust.
On a night when they honored Kirby Puckett in an extended pre-game memorial, the Wolves got absolutely nothing when they went to the bench in a loss to Houston that for the combined play of the two teams ranks as one of worst of the season.
The trio of McCants, Reed, and Jaric, so spunky and synergistic in recent games, shot a combined 1-14 from the field and finished with 6 points in over 45 minutes of play. It ranked down there with the Golden State blowout as Reed's worst game as a Timberwolf. Jaric had no idea how to score but defended decently and picked up 4 assists in 11:06. Still, the dominant impression was negative. McCants continued to have more of a clue on defense, but simply didn't shoot week, which is murder for him, was passive about going to hoop, and generally seemed out of sorts. And Eddie Griffin didn't distinguish himself either, but did block two shots in 12:07. Bottom line, no offense.
That was the first thing out of Kevin Garnett's mouth in the locker room when asked what happened in a disastrous 4th quarter that saw the Wolves miss 18 of their first 19 shots, hitting their first field goal on a KG dunk with 4:52 left in the game. By that time a 67-61 lead entering into the period was a 70-76 deficit. "We usually get a better boost from our bench," Garnett said. Then, alluding to Puckett's death and the reason why a lift from the bench was so vital on this night, he added, "It's been a rough 48 hours for me personally."
2. The Go-Go Wolves and solving the turnover riddle.
Dwane Casey had one thing on his mind after the game: The Wolves didn't push the tempo enough. Almost regardless of what question was asked and what brief tangent was taken, the coach brought the subject back to the fact that Houston likes to play a slow-down, deliberate game and pound the ball into Yao Ming (who had 30 points), and that the Wolves too easily obliged them by not forcing the running game.
I'm not sure he's right. Minnesota did have 18 fast-break points, which is more than usual, but the at least three of those baskets came in garbage time when they were struggling to catch up. Ball movement was good, with Ricky Davis especially executing some beautiful assists. Personally, I would have liked to have seen the Wolves try to exploit more post-ups with either Davis or Trenton Hassell, given that Houston started 6-1 David Wesley and 6-2 Rafer Alston in the backcourt. Instead, Mark Blount was the most effective half-court weapon, canning 8 of 13 shots from the field, some of them tough jumpers contested by Yao, before Blount inevitably fouled out. Marcus Banks likewise shot well, 12-19 from the field en route to 26 points, but many were in garbage time and his game was more impressive on paper than before our eyes.
In all, Minnesota racked up a very respectable 22/8 assist/turnover ratio, prompting me (mindful of our turnover discussion in the last three pointer) to ask Casey if the lower turnovers were the product of less tempo. He inferred that it probably was--I think he would have said anything to justify more tempo, so this answer is hardly a surprise--and then added, "I'll take 16, 17 turnovers if the pace is up." Earlier he had emphasized, "If we want to be a running team, we've got to do it every night." Hmmmmm. Should be an interesting six-game road trip against relatively tougher competition than what they've been facing.
3. Bits and pieces
Houston went to the line 45 times (to 21 for Minnesota), outrebounded them 54-43, and, according to Casey, "imposed their will on us."
Davis grimaced a few times during the game from what appeared to be a groin or stomach injury. I forget right now what his exact ailment is reported to be, but he wasn't 100 percent.
Buried in the ugly loss is further evidence that, 59 games into the season, Casey has hit upon a predictable, bona fide rotation, with the three ex-Celts not named Reed plus Hassell and KG as the starters, Reed-McCants-Jaric as the energy trio off the bench, and Griffin providing slightly less minutes than those three unless Blount or KG is in early foul trouble. AC, Mad Dog and Frahm (or Dupree or Wright, when active) are out of the rotation. I could quibble with it, naturally, but there is logic in it and the fact that it exists at all is progress.
I have a boatload of non-Wolves things that must be done in the next few days, so I won't be watching, let along commenting upon, the Wolves versus the Jazz tomorrow night (I'll tape it and watch it over the weekend). I'll try and remember to post an open thread comment line sometime tomorrow evening.
Last but certainly not least, those of you not overdosed on Kirby Puckett with 20 minutes to kill should check out former CP writer Ann Bauleke's elegant and artful profile of Puck that our editor thoughtfully linked up on Balls! elsewhere on this site. Ann hasn't written for us in over a decade and I'd forgotten what an extraordinary way she has with words.