The Three-Pointer: Crunch-Time Tenacity
1)Casey opts for defense when it matters most
After the first three quarters of play in the 2006-07 season, the ridiculous, angering stat was that Kevin Garnett had the fewest shot attempts (7) and yet more field goals (7) than anyone in the Wolves' starting lineup. The team had just completed a putrid third quarter in which it committed seven turnovers and allowed nine offensive rebounds, turning a two-point halftime lead into a two-point disadvantage. Anyone who remembered last year's succession of crunch time chokes could only hope the team would at least contend long enough to put itself in a position to cough up another one.
It didn't help when Coach Dwane Casey rested KG with promising but raw rookie Craig Smith and had Troy Hudson running the point with Eddie Griffin on the low block as the 4th period began. I'd watched Hudson and Griffin cave into each other's dysfunctions during a preseason game in Moline ten days ago: Huddy incapable of dishing a proactive pass and so dumping it to Eddie, who, naturally, turned around and jacked it up. They blew through a fairly good lead in a loss to Indiana that night.
Yup, twice in three minutes the ball swung to Eddie, resulting in a blocked shot and a clanked shot. With the Wolves down 3 with 8:47 to go, Casey called timeout. And what he did next deserves a tip of the cap.
KG in for Eddie Griffin. Trenton Hassell in for Ricky Davis. Now during most of the preseason, and presumably for the regular season, the plan is for KG and Craig Smith to be power forwards, and for Trenton Hassell and Marko Jaric to be small forwards. The lineup Casey was going with probably never saw any time together in preseason: the four above-mentioned forwards and T-Hud. All but Huddy have proven themselves to be ace, reliable defenders.
Over the next three minutes, that makeshift lineup forced four straight turnovers, sending the Wolves on an 8-0 run that put them in front for good. When Smith fouled out, Mark Blount replaced him, hindering the D a tad (the Kings committed just two more turnovers and scored 12 points in the remaining 5:53), but by then the Kings were frustrated, Bibby got tossed for a pair of technicals that KG converted into free throws, and the Wolves won going away, 92-83. The activity of Jaric, Hassell, and KG together was superb.
Mike James and his four turnovers in 24 minutes, plus spotty defense, never got off the bench in the 4th quarter. Ricky Davis, who actually played well within the offense and had some hustle movements on D in the first half before reverting to his defensive shortcomings in the third period, sat the final 8:47. Ditto Eddie Griffin, who must learn that a missed jumper is as good (or bad) as a travelling call or dribbling the ball off his foot. Good messages sent all the way around--and, not coincidentally, no el foldo in the 4th period.
2)The Huddy Rollercoaster
I'm not going to lie to you: I think putting faith in Troy Hudson is, on balance, fool's gold. But the slate is wiped clean for a new season and these three-pointers frequently are meant to frame single games, so I'm going to tell you that tonight's Huddy Rollercoaster was mostly an enjoyable ride.
Yeah, we all knew that when Huddy banged home two jumpers 35 seconds apart in the second period that wild horses and four open teammates perched on each other's shoulders standing next to the hoop wouldn't prevent him from jacking up another bomb, just to see if he was "hot." And, as mentioned before, it is highly advisable that Huddy be surrounded by plenty of bail-out options in case opposing defenses think to press him on the perimeter and force him to pass to a reflexive gunner who draws iron like Eddie G. In fact, T-Hud needs to play 99 percent of the time with KG, who was the de facto point guard during Huddy's primary season as a Wolves' starter, who genuinely likes Huddy and the way his perimeter shooting opens things up in the paint, and who is the solver of most anything that ails anybody on a basketball court.
But enough sarcasm. Because Troy Hudson worked hard on defense, and, like the Human Torch yelling "flame on!" stroked a 25-foot trey off a KG feed 20 seconds after Garnett entered the game in the 4th quarter, and went on to wrack up 11 points with only one turnover during that final 8:37 of the game. Nice job Huddy.
3) Heroic co-captains
Bet you didn't know that Trenton Hassell was named a co-captain of the team alongside KG for this season. Naturally it is something of a secret, like most everything good associated with Unsung #23, the Yeoman, who had the unenviable task of laying a body on the brick shithouse known as Ron Artest for most of the game. Generally, Hassell is renowned for his work on the gazelles, the Ray Allens, Kobe Bryants and Paul Pierces. Artest is a horse. And in the second half, Artest went 1-6 from the field in both the 3rd and 4th quarters, with Hassell logging a total of 20:26 minutes in those periods. When Hassell gets three fewer points than Artest on 14 fewer shot attempts, the odds are very good that the Wolves will triumph. So it was tonight.
Last but never least, let me offer my first tribute to Kevin Garnett. I don't think he's ever going to consistently surf the incredible crest of that MVP season and the one before it that was at least just as good. And I wouldn't want to bet my mortgage on how everything will work out between KG and the Wolves over the next six months to six years. But within this immaculate team game, there are individual players who just fill you with admiration, in between flooding you with excitement. Sure, we can all spend time comparing KG to two or three years ago and speculating on where he'll be two or three years from now; but there are glorious memories to be minted, right now, from the greatest athlete in the history of Minnesota sports.
They don't let KG wheel and deal in the half-court sets nearly as frequently anymore (more on that when it costs them ballgames), so he was limited to three assists tonight and all of them were gems. In the first quarter, he zipped a pass from the high post down to Blount undernearth, a replica of the KG-to-Rasho interior dish in Rasho's final year here, which Blount converted with a nice, contorted arch of his back as his banked in the layup. Then, as KG was wheeling on the right block, he saw Jaric crashing from the top of the key on the left side and fed him perfectly for another layup. The third was the confidence booster for Huddy in the final stanza.
There has been plenty of talk from local writers and columnists about KG not taking over games and not being a crunch time player. Someday I'll dig out the stats that show his crunch time timidity and ineptitude to be an urban myth. But what I want to focus on here is, how many other superstars pulling down $22 million and who hadn't missed in 15 shot attempts (seven from the field, eight at the line) would have set Huddy up so well--wide open, feet set, knowing Mike James is the big new face in the season opener--rather than spinning and taking the triple-team to the hole? When it was over, KG had a game-high 24 points on a measley nine shots (exhausted, he missed the last two), a game-high 12 rebounds, and a game-high 3 blocks. Take the stats for granted, but if you can't appreciate the joyful visual spectacle of this man's game, you deserve to be subjected to a week's worth of Bachmann and Wetterling ads.