The Three-Pointer: Four in a Row
Sometimes the answers and explanations are simpler than we journalists and pundits and armchair point guards make them. Now that I'm doing these treys after most every game, some of this needless complexity is a desire not to repeat myself ad nauseum. But sometimes it's because I forget the big picture. It took the Wolves whupping another quality team--the Bulls had won 7 straight--on the road Saturday night for me to remember that a signature theme of this Wolves season was that in Mike James and a fully integrated Ricky Davis, Kevin Garnett would once again have a credible critical mass of talent, if not an outright MV3, with which to levy and parlay his own extraordinary skills, which would be sufficient to elevate the squad to playoff contention.
The last three games--four, if you must count a routine win over a listless 76er squad--have borne this out. As James has increasingly begun to play with the aggressiveness that can only be pulled off by confidence and quality execution, opposing defenses have stopped collapsing upon KG so much. The result, surprise surprise, is the reemergence of glorious team-wide ball movement. Garnett is frequently cited (and criticized) for being the NBA's most unselfish superstar, but if you've got a couple of viable scoring options elsewhere, especially at least one who can both bomb from outside and put it on the floor and drive/dish in the paint, KG will grease a gleeful rhythm with the stylistic panache of his passing game. But as good as Garnett is at finding the open teammate, or burning the lack of double-teams with his trademark baseline-shoulder turnaround jumper on the left block, what makes the passing offense really click is that the ball doesn't absolutely have to flow through him every possession, or even every two or three. That means if James or Davis see an opportunity for themselves or another teammate, they can act on it at any time and the Top Dog won't be pissed. And if you don't think that's rare, you don't know the unwritten rules of NBA pecking orders.
But for the full potpourri of KG's offensive skills--the marvelous jump shooter, the passer with the wide-angled peripheral court vision, and the magnanimous decoy--to be realized, you got to have a couple of players who have the stones to take and make big shots, possess good hands, and have an intuitive clue about rhythm and just rewards. Davis always showed that promise, but James took time to qualify. Now that he has, you see KG in near-vintage form, scorching Utah for 31 on Friday and then roasting the Bulls for 11 points and 5 assists in the first half (he finished with 8) as the Wolves built a 13-point lead Saturday in Chicago. Of the team's 20 first-half baskets, 16 were assisted, versus only 6 turnovers.
One final point on this, is that it is interesting to see who benefits most from this newfound passing rhythm. In particular, smart, unselfish vets like Trenton Hassell suddenly see their points and assists rise, while talented but green rookies like Randy Foye, who excels at the one-on-one game but is behind in terms of the NBA team passing concepts, has hit a rougher patch. And somebody like Mark Blount, who is willing but lacks the hands, and intuitive rhythm (like when and how long to stay in the paint) for quick ball movement, becomes more turnover-prone. On balance, however, it sure is fun to watch, eh?
Just as James has catalyzed the offense with his improved shooting eye and passing instincts, the decision by Davis that he will actually put some sweat equity into guarding his man has done amazing things for the Wolves' team D. Watching this new Ricky Davis the past three games especially, one doesn't know whether to salute his conversion or strangle him for pissing away a half-dozen other contests with his half-assed diligence and quarter-assed focus on the defensive end. It is not gospel, but generally pretty true that in the NBA, your defense is only as good as your weakest link. When Davis broke down by failing to stop penetration or rotate over to cover a teammate's double-team, it threw everyone into freelance chaos, and the best defenders--specifically KG and Trenton Hassell--frequently looked bad by responding most rapidly to Davis's inattention, putting their own man and assignment in flux.
So you want to know what happens when Davis is dedicated on D? Well, Garnett had three blocks and four steals Saturday night. Trenton Hassell hounded leading Bulls scorer Luol Deng into just ten points (or about half his season average), including a mere two in the first half. And overall, the Wolves limited a Chicago team that had topped 100 points in 8 of its last 9 games to just 81, on 39.5% shooting from the field.
2) One gets it, the other doesn't
Last year, the Wolves had two intriguing underachievers you could dub as head cases; both superb defenders against the right match-ups and a gamble otherwise; both unreliable offensively. This year, Marko Jaric has redeemed his reliability to the point where he is a Casey favorite in the 4th quarter, and was invaluable Saturday night when the Bulls went small and he played alongside Hassell-Davis-James-KG instead of Blount or Craig Smith (both saddled with early foul trouble). But Eddie Griffin has fallen into a very deep well. Inserted into the game for two brief stints totalling less than nine minutes, Griffin was minus-14 in a ten-point Wolves win (the next-worst plus/minus stat was Foye's minus-3) and looked lost at both ends of the court. This is not a rare thing. Griffin has the worst plus/minus ratio on the team by leaps and bounds. Were it not for his fragile psyche and the recent injury to Mark Madsen, a case could be made for not dressing him most games. As someone who has long defended him and been thrilled by games where he owned the paint with his blocks and boards, I'm baffled and sad.
3) Still dreaming Iverson
While I haven't surfed all the websites and engorged myself with rumors, I get the sense that Minnesota is very much in the Iverson hunt. I still find it hard to believe Philly would take the Foye-Jaric-James package ESPN broached the other night, but Sid Hartman's column today was even more unbelievable--Foye-Griffin-Davis-Hudson! That would enable a starting five of Garnett-Iverson-Blount-Hassell-Jaric, with James and Craig Smith the first guys off the bench. If that isn't a playoff team--one that would scare the big boys in a short series too--I don't know what is.
As for the extra money owner Glen Taylor would have to pony up, don't think for a moment he wouldn't leap at the chance. To be clear, I have no inside information to confirm this. But consider Taylor's history: This is a guy who paid KG top dollar to the point the league executed a new collective bargaining agreement; who paid Sprewell $14 million knowing that almost every dollar was doubled by being over the luxury tax; and who has said numerous times that the best training for being an NBA owner was not his other business ventures (and he's damn near cornered the market on wedding invitations), but his stint in the State Legislature, because of the importance of public opinion and what amounts to "show biz" on his decisions. If he's publicly chafing about money, it is simply to get Philly to take more of those bloated contracts and use less of that $4.2 million trade exemption.