The Three-Pointer: KG and Foye MV2
1) Foye leaps up the pecking order
It was happening again. Six days ago, the Wolves played their most ignominious game of the season, choking through a 7-to-34 4th quarter waxing that transformed a double-digit lead into a double-digit loss. Tonight, after being up 25 with 17:51 left to play and by 14 with a mere 5:34 to go, the Chicago Bulls reeled off a dozen straight points in three and a half minutes, forcing Minnesota coach Dwane Casey to call timeout up just 94-92 with 2:03 on the clock.
Casey called up a play that sent Kevin Garnett to his favorite spot on the left (if you are facing the basket) block, and a passell of Bulls dutifully followed him. Then Marko Jaric inbounded a beautiful bounce pass along the right baseline to rookie Randy Foye, who caught-and-shot a 15-footer that broke the Bulls run. Thirty seconds later, Foye drove the lane, was fouled, and nailed both free throws to bump the lead to six with 1:30 left. But Chicago tied it with 7 seconds to play. In the huddle, Casey again called Foye's number; a high pick-and-roll that was really more KG catching the inbounds, flipping it to Foye, and watching the rook work his patented right-hand runner, banking it in from seven feet. After the game, fellow rookie Craig Smith said Casey's tabbing of Foye for the game-winner was "automatic. I knew exactly what he was doing. Nobody can stop him...That [move] is his bread and butter and I haven't seen anybody stop it."
Having your embattled coach look smart by calling your number on the two most crucial offensive possessions of the game while the embattled personnel guy who manuvered to secure your services on draft day watches from the stands is one of the surest ways to move up in the pecking order of any ballclub. It also doesn't hurt that the Wolves need Foye to emerge quickly to lessen the sting on both KG and their hardcore fans over not landing Allen Iverson. It won't be an immediate and total fait accompli--there is still Ricky Davis and Mike James, not to mention a rapidly recovering Rashad McCants to contend with--but right now it is hard to imagine Foye not settling into the role as KG's primary sidekick and staying there until the superstar retires or is traded.
This is not all good news, by the way. During the Wolves' last four game winning streak, it seemed pretty obvious, and heartening, that if James found his aggressiveness and Davis humped on defense, Garnett had a nice little nucleus--or maybe orbiting electrons--against which to parlay his skills and weave his synergistic magic. But Davis and James are unreliable. They don't feel like winners. Davis does a lot of things well, and actually was sorely missed after he fouled out with 4:45 to play. But his defensive effort was again lacking--only the Bulls' ennui and succession of missed open jumpers saved his ass in the first half, although he did improve some in the second half--and the strong arguments you can make both for and against his overall game make it fitting that he was essentially acquired for Wally Szczerbiak, another teaser who bounces between solid second fiddle and shakey third wheel.
James is worse than that. At the 25 game mark, it is time for him to demonstrate why he was the Wolves' most significant free agent signing. Right now he is playing without confidence, and is THE weak link, including Davis, in the team's defense, has trouble making sharp passes, is clanging open jumpers at an alarming rate and has the second-worst plus/minus ratio--ahead of only Eddie Griffin--on the roster. Tonight he was 2-8 from the field, finishing with 8 points, 5 assists and 3 turnovers in 33:28 and was the defender the Bulls' most obviously picked on (although Foye, too, took his lumps on dribble-penetration) when Chicago played a small lineup and made their second-half run. Bottom line, Mike James was signed to be a catalyst and at the quarter-pole of the season has more often been the opposite, the dampener on the lit fuse. It's too bad, because Minnesota needs a perimeter player to initiate their offense (Foye, who was fabulous with 25 points in 25:53, nevertheless had just one dime and three turnovers) and James seemed tailor-made for the role abetting this personnel.
2) Testy Superstar
As the exotic new flavor in town who delivered when it mattered, Foye will deservedly get most of the ink and airtime when pundits recap this game. But the hands-down MVP was Garnett, who once again abused multiple Defensive Player of the Year winner Ben Wallace for a near triple-double totals after two and half periods, the main ingredient in the Wolves recipe for opening up a 25-point lead. You know the drill: When the Bulls collapsed on him, Garnett dished for cutters making layups, zipped it to the weak side for open jumpers, or went to the rack and drew the foul. Chicago had better luck using Luol Deng (the Bulls best all-around player) instead of Wallace and sending waves of swingmen for the double and triple teams, but KG still finished with 26-14-8 and just two turnovers in 35:51.
The other day in the Star Tribune, columnist Patrick Reusse opined that Casey might not last another half-dozen games, and there was sort of a ghoulish sense of anticipation surrounding the club in the wake of the Laker-game fiasco that has only been partially ameliorated by the last two wins. The most ominious sign for Casey is not columns by Sid Hartman or Reusse, but subtle but unmistakeable signs of petulance from Garnett. Tonight in the locker room after the game, KG wasn't in one of those equivocal "a win's a win" modes, but rather talked about how these nail-biting games make it "hard on the starters" who have built the leads and then watched them fritter away. "Nine times out of 10 we can't put ourselves in that position. It is just too hard on those who play the bulk of the minutes," he said. He then took a couple of oblique shots at Casey's rotation, specifically mentioning that he "would love to see [Mark Blount] play a lot more, but that is Casey's decision." He also put in a brief for Troy Hudson, saying that Huddy is one of those guys who understands what it takes to win and what is going on in the heat of crunchtime.
But I thought Casey demonstrated that he'd learned some hard lessons from the Laker game. He was quicker to call time outs, to get Garnett back into action, and to aggressively manage the game tonight. Yeah, when Davis fouled out, shortly after he'd gone in for James, Casey could have come back with Hudson (who has a gaudy +46 overall and has played a key role in three of Minnesota's 12 victories) instead of giving James another chance to show his confidence has been gnawed to the quick. But the Bulls have a bullish backcourt with the likes of Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordan and Chris Duhon, and Huddy had seen no action up to that point while James had been playing just 15 seconds (off the game clock) earlier.
The support for Blount is even less defensible. Now suspicious minds will recognize me as a former Blount hater, but his dogged effort this season has won me over--or at least eliminated my animus toward the guy. Tonight, with Wallace checking KG, the Bulls were forced to go with Andres Nocioni and other size-wise pipsqueaks on Blount. The result was a perfect 7-7 from the field in the first half, and seven rebounds to boot in 19:37. Blount finished 9-11 for 18 points and didn't grab a board in the second half, albeit in less than ten minutes of action. A fine night.
But all that effort, plus five inches of extra height, still doesn't enable Blount to play team defense as effectively as rookie Craig Smith. In many respects, Smith is as precocious rotating on defense as Foye is driving to the basket--and in terms of value, the skills are comparable. Tonight, Smith was once again second only to KG in making the quick adjustment that sealed off a temporary gap in the coverage, and then either scrambled back to his own man or seamlessly stayed with the switch. When the Bulls went small, Smith was a better option than Blount, and still not a great one; Casey ultimately went without a center or power forward besides Garnett. KG clearly appreciates the enormous amount of scutwork Blount has undertaken to improve his rebounding and defense (he also had high praise for both Foye and Smith after the game tonight), but Casey made the right calls most of the time, even in the second half, tonight. With Trenton Hassell still weak from the flu, and Davis fouled out, he went with Justin Reed briefly (Reed's lack of rhythm ensures that it won't happen for too long) and Marko Jaric (see point three), but ultimately needed a smaller quicker guard to match up with Chicago's small lineup. He chose James and Foye, who got burned off dribble penetration far too often. But Foye was huge in the clutch and if James isn't your point guard just 25 games into a four-year deal, then McHale (and, by the way, Garnett, who also lobbied for James) has some explaining to do.
3) Just win baby
Stats can be deceiving. Tonight, Marko Jaric's line looks as spotty as Mike James's: Marko was 2-6 FG, missed all three of his free throws, nearly ate up his four assists with three turnovers in 28:25. But when he's on, Jaric does so many little things well, with the bounce pass to Foye being a prime example. Tonight, he was also a tiger on the boards, battling for position and tipping balls to himself a la KG while grabbing 7 overall (and three on the offensive glass). As usual, he and Hassell were the team's best perimeter defenders. Perhaps best of all, you can plug him into so many different roles--he can bring the ball up against full-court pressure on one possession, joust with the big boys under the glass on another, anticipate a back-door cut and make the steal on another, and deliver a nifty feed to a driving KG off the high pick-and-roll on another.
Last but not least, when I asked Foye if he was surprised that he was the go-to guy in game 25 of his rookie year, he cited his four years at Villanova and said he was used to it. Not the confidence in yourself, I amended, but the speed with which it has happened on this team. "Nah, not really," he said simply. Well then, wouldn't you like your minutes bumped up from 30-35 a game rather than 20-25 a game? "I don't mind 25. I'll take five minutes and two points if it's a win," Foye replied. "I just want to win."