The Three-Pointer: This One's On Casey
1) Two examples
To be a good head coach in the NBA essentially is a matter of massaging egos and establishing a consensual pecking order in the locker room and putting your players in the best situations to succeed on the court. The presence of Kevin Garnett makes the first of those duties much easier for second-year coach Dwane Casey. Tonight's hide-your-face loss to the Lakers--in which the Wolves were annihilated 7-34 in the 4th quarter en route to a 94-111 pasting--was primarily attributable to Casey failing in the second of those duties.
Among many options, I'll choose two examples.
In a series of comment postings earlier today, I referred to Vlad Radmanovic as a "matchup nightmare" because he is tall (listed at 6-10) but plays like a two-guard, preferring to shoot threes or score in penetration or transition. Very few people Vlad's height get a lower percentage of their points on the low block. Casey knows this; he coached him for many years in Seattle. And yet Casey allowed Phil Jackson to match Vlad up with Craig Smith, the paint-centric center-power forward who stands 6-7 and weighs 272 (6th tallest and heaviest player on the Wolves). Now Smith has a huge heart, and gamely tried to stay with Radmanovich during his time on the floor. But if Vlad wasn't luring Smith out to the perimeter with his three-point shooting prowess and then blowing by the stronger but much slower player for layups, he was running Smith ragged behind screens and popping that trey in the Lakers' half-court passing offense. Bottom line, according to popcornmachine.net, is that Radmanovic was an incredible game-best +33 during his 20:09 on the court, while Smith was game-worst -20 in his 14:14 of play.
After Radmanovic blew by Smith for a pair of layups early in the 2nd quarter, Casey got Justin Reed up at 7:45 of the period. Okay, I thought, he gave Smith a shot and found out it didn't work. Reed is a much better option on Vlad. Except that Reed went in for Marko Jaric (who was having his own problems and seems to be dangerously close to last year's moody funk). Nor did Casey learn from his mistake. Because like everything for the Wolves in this game, things were much worse for Smith in the 4th quarter. Radmanovic bombed for eight points in 6:10 as the Lakers were turning a 77-87 deficit into a 96-91 lead, before Casey subbed in Reed for Smith, leaving Radmanovic scoreless until a meaningless trey in the final minute.
The second example involves Casey's insistence on foisting the classic point guard role on to Randy Foye. Now, I've said this before--Foye does many things well, and is also a guy you want with the ball in important situations. He breaks down opponents as well as anyone on the team. What he does not do well, and hurts his team doing when thrust in the role, is being the primary guy to bring the ball up and provide some creative initiation when the club is working their half-court sets. I'm talking about court vision; the kind of pass that might seem risky unless you are gifted at dishing. Kevin Garnett certainly has it--seven of his eight assists tonight were passes resulting in relatively easy layups for his teammates, and the other one was a dish-out to Mike James for a trey. More than half were stunning in their peripheral acuity and rapid execution. In other words, there were no "Stockton-to Malone assists" where he lobbed a pass to a guy on the block who made it happen pretty much on his own. Ricky Davis is another player who can probe with a pass, and Mike James, especially if his penetration game is going, can also dish.
Not Foye. Not yet. Maybe not ever, although I wouldn't conclusively rule it out. All I know is that right now, in his rookie season, when he is the point guard, Foye typically brings the ball up, surveys the floor for possible openings for his own drive, looks around for cuts and screens that leave a teammate wide open for a non-risky pass, and, if nothing presents itself, simply dishes to a player beside him out on the perimeter, usually with the shot clock at about 12 or 13. It is very similar to what Troy Hudson used to do when he "ran" the offense a few years ago, except that Foye doesn't dribble as well as Hudson and drives through traffic more often, so his turnover rate is higher.
Put it this way: Through tonight's game, the 22nd of the season, Foye has 38 assists and 36 turnovers in 348 minutes of action. He's the guy you want to swing it to with 12 on the clock and the defense not totally focused on him yet. He's not the guy you want dribbling the length of court, perhaps against pressure, with everybody watching and waiting intently for his next move. And if you do put him in that situation, you better have plenty of smart ball-handlers and scoring options out there with him. As I've written many times now, I think Mike James and Kevin Garnett should be his dual safety nets, but if not both, one or the other.
Tonight, Casey began the 4th quarter with Foye at the point and KG and James on the bench. Foye's options were an obviously rattled Jaric, a scoring but frequently stone-handed Blount, a slightly winded from chasing Radmanovic Craig Smith, and a decent safety net in Ricky Davis. When Casey mercifully subbed Foye out at the 5:02 mark, Minnesota had been outscored in the period 21-4 and had lost all sense of rhythm, rhyme or reason in their half-court offense. It wasn't that Foye was throwing the ball away--he had just one turnover. But he wasn't initiating anything positive either: He had zero assists and the team had exactly one basket in those 7 minutes. Again, this is not the fault of Randy Foye, a marvelously talented rookie who was put in a situation that significantly reduced his odds of success.
2) Bad timing
The 4th quarter collapse came at a particularly bad time for this franchise. First of all, most fans and the team's superstar are trying to cope with the severe disappointment of losing out in the Iverson sweepstakes. When it was mentioned to KG after the game, he simply muttered, "that's pretty much the way things go around here."
Yet before it all turned to shit, the Wolves came out obviously looking to wipe the slate clean and make a statement that they didn't need Iverson. When this was mentioned to Garnett, he politely refocused the source of his own intensity more to atoning for his "mediocre" performance in Milwaukee. He specifically mentioned wanting to be more aggressive and figuring out how to counteract what other teams were throwing up against him. And he was marvelous for three periods, flirting with a triple double and going back to playing the staunch defense we have come to expect.
More significantly, Ricky Davis was energized, especially on defense, working hard around picks and generally continuing an industrious phase that began about three weeks ago. The 22 points he got tonight were sneaky-good, totally in the flow of the offense or poached off defensive pressure in transition. One time in a thrilling third quarter, he dove on the floor to retrieve a loose ball and then wound up getting it back for a three pointer. Trenton Hassell and Mark Blount were likewise effective; only Mike James remained in a funk, scoring his first bucket with 3:26 to play in the 2nd quarter. But even he too had 6 assists and no turnovers.
Too bad it all vanished, leaving the squad bewildered, and beseiged by boos at various points in that putrid final stanza. These are games that corrode chemistry and confidence, and immediately post-Iverson it was horribly timed.
3) Putting the Kobe/KG canard to rest
Did you hear the one about how Kobe Bryant can carry inferior teammates while Kevin Garnett needs a sidekick or two to make things happen? Well, when Kobe checked back into the game--undoubtedly to salve his ego--with 3:25 left to play in the game, the Lakers were -17 in the 26:53 he had been on the court, and +27 during the 17:42 he sat on the bench. Kobe did manage to register a +7 in that 3:25 of garbage time to come up with a composite -10. On the other hand, the Timberwolves were +4 during the 38:04 Garnett played, and -21 during the 9:56 he sat.