The Three-Pointer: Disappointing Weekend Split
1) The Enigmatic Eddie G.
If you've been wondering where the second half of my Wolves season preview is, I've been busy eating my unwritten words recommending that Eddie Griffin start over Mark Blount at center. But the guy who prowed the paint like a tiger in the preseason, and has occasionally played with beguiling grace and prescience during his two years with Minnesota has again reverted back to the guy who seems to be operating in a more difficult reality than everyone else out on the basketball court.
I don't say this lightly, because Griffin could be battling clinical depression; a tenacious alcohol jones; an intense, perfectionistic fear of failure; or something equally dire. Or he could simply be chronically immature and undisciplined. I don't know, and while for reasons both humanitarian and aestethic I sincerely wish the best for him, the basketball fan and analyst in me knows that he needs to get his head straight if he is going to earn the millions of dollars he is being paid to help this team win.
Friday night against Denver, Eddie G. had trouble even holding on to the basketball. He physical and mental decisions were always either half a beat too fast or too slow. Fortunately, wunderkind banger Craig Smith stepped up with a monster night, including 20 points in 16 minutes of action, and Blount likewise had a solid game, enabling the Wolves to spring the upset in the Nuggets' home opener.
Tonight, Casey cut Griffin's minutes from 13 to 9 despite the fact that Portland was playing a front line that would have been neatly checkmated by a prime time Eddie G. performance. The Blazers' leviathan center Joel Przybilla was out with an injury and their backup leviathan Jamaal Magloire was moving like a painful old man, permitting layups left and right as the Wolves scooting to a 30-14 first quarter lead. Then Portland coach Nate McMillan deployed a whippet-quick front line of 6-7 small forward Martell Webster and 6-9 pogo stick Travis Outlaw alongside burly 6-9 power forward Zach Randolph, and Portland turned the momentum, and eventually the game, around. Outlaw, for whom Griffin is probably the best counter, finished with a team-high 18 points and a team-high 15 rebounds. The Wolves were a minus-16 during Eddie's time on the court, after going minus-15 playing Griffin in Friday's 3-point win.
Meanwhile, Blount has by far the highest plus-minus total of any Timberwolf during the past two games. Since the whistle blew to start the regular season, he and Griffin have switched personae, with Blount suddenly not commiting all the stupid, uncoordinated fouls he took during the preseason, not forcing the action offensively underneath, hitting the open jumper when it's presented to him, and, most importantly, doing a nice job with help defense on his interior rotations.
In the last trey, I wrote that believing in Troy Hudson was, on balance, fool's gold, and since then Huddy has validated that sentiment with the pointless jitterbug cavorting and dunderheaded shot-selection many of us have come to expect. While less toxic, Blount is another player whose vices have typically outweighed his virtues. He has a proclivity for turnovers, is soft as bread pudding, and possesses a jammed radar for rebounds. But there is no question that Blount has been the Wolves' best answer in the pivot thus far this season. He could always stroke the jumper, as his game-clinching shot on Friday reinforced. But he's also playing smart--especially the shot selection and defensive rotations--and a little tougher on the boards, and both are a bit of a pleasant shock. Maybe Wolves' announcer Jim Peterson, a big booster of Blount's ever since the veteran center and his $8 million annual salary hit town, is right about him being "among the top half" of the centers in the NBA. But I've got a lot more skepticism to erase before I agree with him.
2)A tale of three rookies
Another brilliant suggestion for the starting lineup that I actually did write was pencilling in Randy Foye at shooting guard. Foye's play thus far explains the cliche, "getting his feet wet." He acts like the water is cold and a bit of a foreign sensation--not afraid, just very very tentative. He needs a bit of luck--a gift steal and breakaway lay-up, or nailing a three-pointer because the clock is about to expire--so he exhale and start to let his abundant talent take hold. Still, the evidence thus far hasn't been kind, and showed up in stark relief this weekend against the play of two other rooks--Wolves' second-round pick Craig Smith and Portland's Brandon Roy, the guy originally taken by Minnesota and swapped for Foye and some sweetening cash on draft night.
The quick second-guessers are probably howling about the mismatch in the Roy-Foye sweepstakes after the first week of their respective NBA careers. One wonders in particular what coach Dwane Casey is thinking. Casey clearly wanted Roy on draft night, was full of praise for the kid he saw play in both high school and college when he coached up in Seattle. But at the time the Wolves had a little hole at point guard, which the combo guard Foye could play better than Roy, who could be regarded at first glance as something of a Ricky Davis clone. Kevin McHale just as clearly wanted Foye, and owner Glen Taylor seemed really happy they landed Foye. I understand it. Not only is he a 1/2 swingman on a team laden with 2/3 swingmen like Roy, he's got some defensive moxie and likes to go to the hole on offense.
In other words, let's not flip out over Foye's slow start. Conversely, Foye lovers shouldn't deny that Brandon Roy is going to be very good, and already has been flipped the keys to the offense, as his isolation at the top of the key on Portland's final play tonight--he penetrated and dished to Juan Dixon for the winning bucket--demonstrated.
As for the third rook in this conversation, well, let's just say that after hearing that Casey compared Craig Smith to Bernard King and then Peterson offered up Wes Unseld as his facsimile, I'm old enough to have seen King and Unseld play, and to go all Lloyd Bentsen on that Quayle-like wisdom. I mean, I've really liked Craig Smith ever since I saw him hold his own under the boards against a blue-collar drudge like PJ Brown in the first home preseason tilt against the Bulls. The guy he reminds me of is Corliss Williamson, who is a far cry from Bernard King (a forward who once dropped 60 points on the New Jersey Nets) or Wes Unseld (the NBA MVP his rookie year in the league), but not bad territory for a second round draft pick.
There is a lot to like about Smith, most of all his intelligence. That includes his physical intelligence, his instinct for the game (a deficiency of Blount's), but also the way he absorbs information. Smith shows hard on the pick and roll (call him the anti-Kandi), can create space in the paint without obviously fouling, runs hard from foul line to foul line, and doesn't get discouraged by momentary embarrassment.
Unfortunately, it is possible that the monster 20-point effort Smith had on Friday will hinder his perspective for awhile, and with it his effectiveness. The great thing about Smith during the preseason is that he did all the little things, the screens and box-outs and rotations and footwork. But once the ball started going in the hole against Denver, the 6-7 oak from Boston College began concentrating on the big things, like getting that rock and offering up floaters that cascade through the hoop. The commitment to D, to sacrificing himself, to being the complement instead of the compliment, the appetizer instead of the entree, diminished ever so slightly. And who can blame him?
But the bottom line is that, despite his fabuloso 20 point night Friday, Smith was minus-3 in a Wolves' plus-3 win, and followed that up with a minus-15 tonight in the Wolves minus-2 loss--despite the fact that Casey, who is genuinely enamored with his play, is giving him minutes alongside Kevin Garnett instead of strictly subbing him in for KG. None of which is to knock Craig Smith, who deserves to be in the rotation, and has already proven he can burn opponents who double-team KG and don't keep a body on him in the half-court offense.
3)It is Ricky avis, who has everything but the D and needs to try harder
Sorry for that dreadful pun--it's late. Last year, I probably heaped as much scorn on Ricky Davis as any other Timberwolf once he arrived from Boston. Part of it was the way he took over distributing the ball in the offense, a role KG cherished and performed as well or better than Ricky. But a bigger part of it was his abysmal effort go guard anyone, which was particularly galling after we'd heard McHale laud his defensive prowess.
This year, Davis has said all the right things about needing to improve that aspect of his game. For three games in a row, that commitment hasn't been there. This indifference was most glaring as Andre Miller just toasted him with a bevy of open midrange jumpers on Friday, but has pretty much been a constant. Nobody gives up as many back-door layups as Davis, or so often lags on defense to the point where teammates make adjustments and throw the scheme out of kilter. This was a stud athlete, 6-7, in the chronological prime of his career.
But you already know this rant. What also needs to be said, is that in other facets of his game, Davis had a marvelous opening week of the season. Worries about how he would share the ball not only with KG, but new point guard Mike James, have been groundless, as Davis has willingly ceded the need to control the rock, even as his pinpoint passing--often shrewd, snap judgments that catch opponents unaware--has improved. And while he has a Troy Hudsonish penchant for silly shots if a couple have gone in, he is blending much more efficiently into the three-headed scoring thrust the Wolves are trying to establish with him, KG and James, than he did during all of last year.
Too bad he is such a lazy defender.