The Three-Pointer: Negative Momentum
Computer problems waylaid this trey 24 hours, but hopefully we're up in time for some spirited discussion before Tuesday night's contest against Portland.
Lots and lots of things felt wrong about Saturday's loss to Orlando, a game that added to the grim and ominous vibe that is suddenly upon this franchise just a half-dozen games into the season. But perhaps the hardest part was the near-total dominance of manchild pivot man Dwight Howard in the game-deciding first quarter. With Mark Blount, Eddie Griffin, and Kevin Garnett all taking a crack at denying his will in the paint, Howard sank all six of his shots and grabbed nine boards en route to Orlando's 29-20 lead. It was reminiscent of Amare Stoudemire's first game at the Target Center, when the Phoenix rookie laid waste to a succession of Wolves' bigs with his strength-speed combo.
It should be noted that whenever KG isn't the best player on the floor during a particular game, the Wolves stand about an 80 percent chance of losing. That's a lot of pressure, especially when the alpha of the moment is nine and a half years younger. KG started well, banging down a couple of J's, tagging Tony Battie with a pair of early fouls, adding two steals, and moving the ball smartly in the half court offense. But Mike James missed at least two wide open looks KG provided, then Mark Blount was sent packing with his second foul on Howard, cuing Eddie Griffin for another sleepwalk, and leaving Garnett to defend Howard on three back-em-down hoops that seemed too casually smooth for any Minnesota fan's comfort. At the other end, KG was pressing, clanking jumpers from the top fo the key.
When the period was over, Howard had more boards than the entire Wolves' team, 9-7, including a 3-3 tie on their own glass. Coach Dwane Casey had played ten guys and all but Blount, and KG early, looked listless and forlorn. The second quarter saw the Magic lead balloon to 20 and the boo birds were out. The final, 109-98, in no way describes the gap between the two teams, which looked closer because a slew of boneheaded Orlando fouls enabled the Wolves to sink 16 free throws in 17 attempts in the 4th quarter alone.
2)An unbalanced roster
The inability of Griffin to contribute much of anything only exacerbates what any half-assed Wolves' fan surmised was the squad's biggest weakness heading into the season: a lack of quality bangers to help KG out. Casey has continued his annoying but understandable postgame interview practice of dissembling rather than dissing players who aren't getting the job done, heartily defending/damning Griffin by saying the potentially disadvantageous matchup with Darko Millicic kept his minutes down to 5:09, a time in which the Wolves were minus-7. "It's not about Eddie Griffin, it is about the Timberwolves," he coach replied.
Too true. The Magic outscored Minnesota by 25-4 in second chance points, put up a whopping 52 points in the paint and outrebounded Minnesota 46-28. Of that latter stat, Casey kept saying that the guards needed to crash down and get some boards. Fine: Davis and James totalled 2 rebounds (both of them by James) in a combined 73 minutes and 12 seconds of play. They also each shot 5-13 from the field. Davis had eight assists and got to the line 8 times, but still felt less valuable than Trenton Hassell, who made his only two shot attempts, grabbed three rebounds, and throttled Hedu Turkoglu, a 13 ppg scorer who went 1-9 FG for a measley two points. Hassell's minus-2 for the game was the second best on the team, behind Blount's plus-7, earned because he was the only guy who could reasonably contain Dwight Howard. And not to dismiss Mark Blount, because the guy deserves significant credit for turning his horrible attributes into mediocrities, but if he's your best low-post defender, your team is in jeopardy.
Let's get serious: the roster is way too top-heavy with mid-sized swingmen. Hassell, Davis, Marko Jaric, Randy Foye, and, when he returns, Rashad McCants, can't all be 20-30 minutes-per-game guys if the team is going to establish any kind of rhythm or identity. Foye can play a little point guard but still seems much better suited alongside James in the backcourt. Hassell will take the top mid-sized scorer, be he small forward or shooting guard. Every minute Ricky Davis plays deprives Foye of experience, KG of touches around a better team nucleus, and the entire squad of a cohesive defense. Who doesn't see this?
Meanwhile, the team is bereft of front-line studs to assist Garnett. Craig Smith is a nice story, but I'm not convinced his upside will ultimately guarantee him 15-20 minutes in an 8-9 man rotation on a quality team. Blount is the default starting center, and hustles, hits the open j and right now seems like a plus in terms of team chemistry. He's also easily overwhelmed in the low block, rebounds poorly and collects fouls and turnovers in bunches too frequently. Griffin is flailing. Although their temperaments seem totally different, Mark Madsen in the pivot is like Troy Hudson in the backcourt: a player whose unique if limited skills can either be a wonderful catalyst if the planets are alligned or a game-killer if not in sync. Vin Baker looks much better in a natty suit than a basketball uniform. I hate to promote or indulge in trade talk--it's pointless, as everyone but the folks in the front office working the phones is totally flying blind as to the possibilities and scenarios-- but some of these swing men have to be dealt for someone with a little size and creative moxie under the hoop.
3) Utah creating a sense of urgency
Given the depth of the strength in the Western Conference, I've generally felt that the Wolves best shot at the playoffs would come from winning the relatively weak Northwest Division. Well, the conference is still strong alright--Dallas and Phoenix are a combined 4-9 and you know that won't last--but Utah already looks like winning the Northwest will be tougher than bagging a 7 or 8 seed. The Jazz are 6-1, with both Boozer and Kililenko healthy at the same time for a change, point guard Deron Williams settled in as Sloan's Brain, and Mehmet Okur forcing big men to join him on the perimeter or be singed by the jumper. That leaves Boozer to operate down low, of course, where he is averaging 22 points and 12 boards per game. This looks like a 52-win team. Pray for pulled muscles and tight hamstrings.