The Three-Pointer: A 4th Quarter Problem
1) Goats with no backbones
So with 10:51 left to play in the game and the Wolves up five, 78-73, on the road in Toronto, coach Dwane Casey crosses all of his fingers and toes in fruitless hope and decides to rest Kevin Garnett for the first time in the second half. You know the rest: 3:13 later, KG is rushed back in because the Wolves have failed to score, ceding the lead via a 7-0 Raptors run. Ricky Davis misses a pair of jumpers and turns the ball over. Randy Foye blows a layup. Marko Jaric jacks a brick. It's the second half, so Mark Blount disappears. And Mike James is next to KG on the bench, waiting for his chance to prove that he's not ready for prime time.
Folks who believe Garnett just needs to put the whole team on the back of his shoulders toast their wisdom as he goes hard to the hoop on numerous occasions, hitting a baby hook and a short turnaround in the paint, banging home free throws, dishing crosscourt to Foye--the only other player with a pulse when the game is on the line--who nails a trey.
But of course it isn't enough because one-man ballclubs almost never can surmount the efforts of five opponents and the hindrance of three or four wilting teammates. Let's name the goats in order of obvious culpability.
Mike James: Yup, he had 20 points. Yup, he led the Wolves on the popcornmachine.net site with a +1. Yup he didn't turn the ball over one time. Yup he ranked third in the entire NBA in free throw percentage heading into tonight's tilt. Did he rise to the occasion and earn the trust of his teammates (not to mention a prorated portion of his $23 million over the next four years)? Nope.
His "defense" on Toronto point guard TJ Ford brought back memories of Sam Cassell back when Sammy was playing with an enormously painful back and hip injury (or, if you prefer, a year later when Sammy seemed to be trying to sabotage the Timberwolves season). Dribble penetration against Mike James is roughly akin to the dribble drills through those orange highway cones. Ford had 28 points and seven dimes, and was the clearcut player of the game thanks to James's matador D. Then, with the Wolves up by 4 with less than four minutes to play, James has the ball behind the three-point arc, ready to sink the dagger in. His jumper doesn't even clang, it caroms off the backboard without hitting the hoop. Then, to cap off his night, James is fouled with 8 seconds left to play, awarded three free throws that will tie the game if he makes them all. But the 93 percent free throw shooter is way off line on his second attempt and that's essentially the ballgame.
Was it only last night that Kevin Garnett was lobbying hard for more second half minutes for Blount? Be careful what you wish for. With 8:24 left in the second quarter, Blount executed a nifty layup for his 9th and 10th points. He also had 5 rebounds at the time. Since he sat for three minutes, that's 10 and 5 in his first 12 and a half minutes. When the game was over, Blount had logged a team-high 41:12. He finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds. That's zero points and three boards over the last 29 minutes for a seven-footer who didn't even have to contend with Raptors' pivot man Rasho Nesterovic (who was guarding Garnett).
The second best athlete on the team. Tremendous passer, explosive scorer, fitfully indifferent defender who can wreak havoc when he puts his mind to it. Tonight he was 5-16 from the field and didn't score in the 4th quarter.
2) This one's not on Casey
It seems increasingly unlikely that Dwane Casey will last out the season. After the Laker game, I would have called that justice. Now, well, right now the coach is neither the solution nor the problem, and if he does get canned, some yo yo will pull out the line about not being able to fire the players so you fire the coach. But what was Casey supposed to do tonight: Never sit Garnett on the tail end of a back-to-back right after the superstar had already complained about how coughing up 4th quarter leads unduly taxed the starters? No, instead Casey heeded KG's plea to play Blount. He tried to mix and match James and Davis and had some of his more reliable crunchtime performers, including Jaric, Smith, KG, and Foye, getting 4th quarter minutes. Only Trenton Hassell didn't play the final stanza among the eight players in Casey's shortened rotation, and Foye played the entire period. What would you do?
3) Do or Die Week?
Starting Friday at home against Seattle, Minnesota will play five games in eight days, four of which should be regarded as either eminently winnable or seesaw tilts, those too-close-to-predict scenarios that ultimately decide the success or failure of a ballclub versus prevailing opinion and expectations. Only San Antonio at the Target Center next Wednesday looks like an almost-certain defeat. If the Wolves do indeed go 4-1, beating Seattle and Philly at home and New Jersey and Charlotte on the road, they will be over .500 with more than a third of the season under their belts. But during a season where the schedule has been relatively favorable and serious injuries have been practically nonexistent, a poor showing between now and a week from Friday will harden the cynics and tax the patience of the fair-weather fans.