The Three-Pointer: A Respite In Philly
1) Quality in the backcourt for a change
Sunday night's win on the road in Philadelphia was the best I've seen point guard Mike James play all season. Some of it was that Trenton Hassell had primary responsibility for stopping Allen Iverson most of the evening, meaning James's shoddy defense wasn't sorely tested. Some of it was that, after picking up two fouls in the game's first three minutes, forcing him to sit for the rest of the quarter, James logged 28 out of the 36 minutes in the next three periods, enabling him to get into a rhythm. Some of it was that Philly plays horrible defense, especially on the high-post pick-and-roll. In any event, James not only went off for 20 points (8-14 FG), but also chipped in for 6 assists, tying him for team high with Kevin Garnett. It revealed how much the Wolves have been missing even capable, never mind stellar, play from their top free agent signing, and how important James is to this club's slim playoff hopes this year.
James's backcourt mate Ricky Davis likewise had one of his better games, and again, Philly's awful defense and reliance on Iverson were significant factors. That said, Davis has exerted more effort on the defensive end recently--nowhere near what he could be doing, but he's got to start somewhere. It's been said that Davis flags on D when his jumper isn't falling, but I think the opposite may be true; when he isn't making lazy, disruptive mistakes on defense, Davis seems to perform with more confidence, wisdom, and aplomb at his preferred end of the court. Sunday night he drilled in 14 points in the fourth quarter alone, and ceded more of the ballhandling duties to KG and James. As well as Davis passes the rock, the team seems to function better when the assists are being doled out by others, and while 19 shots and 3 dimes isn't a ratio I'd constantly endorse, Sunday night it felt like the old Sprewell role in the MV3 setup three years ago.
2) Bravo Casey: A shorter bench with the rooks still involved
The turning point in last night's contest came with 3:17 to go in the third period, when coach Dwane Casey subbed in rookies Craig Smith and Randy Foye for Mark Blount and Mike James. After leading by three at the half, the Wolves had played a typically ragged third period, and found themselves down by a point, 60-61. But Smith immediately injected some backbone and brains into the paint, sandwiching a putback and a slam dunk off a feed from KG around two occasions when he hustled himself into position (once on a baseline slide-over rotation to cover for KG's double team) to draw the charge. When the period was over, Minnesota had quelled Philly's momentum and regained their three-point lead.
When Casey subbed in three players with 8:29 to go in the game, the rooks were the players he retained, thus enabling James and Foye to get some tandem time in both halves. When Foye sat with 5:37 left, the Wolves were up 7, and it was the same margin when Smith finally went to the bench at 4:10 to play. In all, Casey shortened his bench considerably, playing the starters and the rookies for 215 of the collective 240 minutes allotted, with Jaric getting 14 and Madsen 11 in the remainder. According to popcornmachine.net, Foye had a team-best plus-12 in 22 minutes and Smith was close behind at plus-10 over 21 minutes. Hudson, Griffin, and Reed stayed put.
3) Quick hits
Hassell hassled Iverson into 6-19 FG and only 7 second-half points. Believe it or not, holding AI to 26 points and 7 assists amounts to a clampdown--he'd averaged 40 over his last few games--and while Hassell had much more assistance on Sunday than against Tracy McGrady and Carmelo Anthony the previous two games, anyone reading about his two points, one assist and 6 rebounds in the box score won't have a clue how valuable he was.
The Wolves committed a season-high 22 turnovers, and yes it looked every bit that sloppy. But in a patter left over from last season, turnovers don't seem to be a key barometer of the team's chances. Thus far this year, they are 4-5 when committing fewer than 18 turnovers, and 3-4 when committing 18 or more.
Excellent job by the team's broadcasting crew Sunday, particularly Jim Peterson, who identified all the significant hallmarks of the game as they were happening. This includes James getting comfortable, Casey's shorter, smarter substitution pattern, and the stablizing impact of the rookies.