The Three-Pointer: Weekend Split with 12-18 teams
1) There is no D in backcourt
There have been two occasions this season when Kevin Garnett has looked awful on defense; the first game against Milwaukee two weeks ago on the road, and last night versus New Jersey. What those opponents have in common are potent scorers in the backcourt (Redd and Mo Williams for the Bucks, Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson for the Nets) and a nondescript front line (Brian Skinner and Andruw Bogut for the Bucks, Mikki Moore and Jason Collins for the Nets), which indicates that, visually as well as physically, KG may have been focusing too much toward help D on the perimeter.
I don't want to excuse the superstar here. The Nets entered the game last in the NBA in offensive rebounds and KG allowed Moore to corral five of them, most resulting in putbacks as part of Moore's tell-the-grandkids night of 20 points on 9-9 FG. But if all Garnett had to do was shut down Moore, don't you imagine it would get done? This team has a backcourt containing a maddeningly inconsistent defender in Ricky Davis, and a guy who hopefully just hasn't figured it out yet in Mike James. But James in particular was torched a variety of ways against the Nets--baseline cuts that also burned Garnett, Davis, Hassell and others, and perimeter jumpers from the likes of Eddie House, who is nothing but an inflammable gunner, with a quick release and a deadly eye but not quick feet or much height. In other words, if Eddie House gets 9 points in less than 6 and a half minutes, as he did against James in the second quarter last night, then House's man isn't guarding him very closely.
Again, without knowing the specifics of the defensive assignments, I can't rip James, who maybe was cheating toward Kidd and Vinsanity the same way KG was cheating off Moore. But I think it's telling that coach Dwane Casey sat James for the final 15:49 last night, even subbing in Bracey Wright for the entire fourth period after Marko Jaric had hurt his hand and was unavailable. Personally, I think that's a bad idea for a number of reasons--you further damage James's fragile confidence, and James is the most complimentary ball-handler for Randy Foye. James had 6 dimes and no turnovers last night while Foye, who had one of his better ball-movement games of the year, was at 4 assists and 2 turnovers. Yes, James continues to have trouble with his shot, going 3-10 from the field, with two of those being first-half layups. Bottom line, I continue to think that the team's best prospects for a playoff push this season involve Foye and James in regular rotation in the same backcourt.
All that said, Casey has a sound argument for benching James in crunchtime. The coach has maintained that he wants this club to establish a defensive identity, and that is almost impossible to do when James is on the floor. (Well, it's possible if you play a battered and dead-tired team, as Minnesota did Friday night at home against the Sonics. I understand Seattle had a rough flight in out of Denver the night before and were pretty much sleepwalking. But that was a horrible, feeble basketball team, easily the Wolves' most lackluster foe of the season thus far.)
Davis has ceased being the club's biggest albatross on defense. I'll concede that his incredible athleticism and occasional displays of commitment to that end of the court whet my appetite to see him explore his potential; and that when he inevitably takes plays off--sometimes bunches at a time--it intensifies my ire. Imagine how KG must feel, knowing the assignments, knowing what he's got in front of him, knowing that Kidd, Vinsanity and RJ are setting up while Collins and Moore are hanging out. A little more consistency from Davis, a clue or two for James (and Foye, for that matter) and perhaps the perimeter D will be such that we won't have to rub our eyes and wonder if that really was Mikki Moore going off for 20 on Kevin Garnett.
2) Figuring how Blount fits
Maybe it's time to try and get Mark Blount 25-30 points a night; run lots of parallel high-posts in the half-court sets and utilize the pick-and-roll on the juiciest matchups, with the other big man crashing hard toward the boards for a rebound or weakside pass from the penetrating guard or high-post pivot man. Because Blount is shooting lights out with a smooth, fabulous stroke, yet the Wolves usually are a net minus in close contests in which he performs.
For example, on a night when 7-10 from the floor, he also was a team-worst -12 (according to popcornmachine.net), grabbed just two rebounds in more than 30 minutes of action, and registered four turnovers. It follows a pattern; both Bucks games also saw him shoot well and still hurt his squad. I've chided Wolves' color announcer Jim Petersen for his Blount ardor, but when you watch him perform, it is hard not to root for the guy. More significantly, he has the backing of Garnett, who rarely misses a chance to praise him in post-game interviews, lauding his versatility and work ethic Friday night after the Seattle game.
Okay, so how do you overcome Blount's weaknesses? Court vision is usually deployed with respect to point guards and other passers, but Blount seems to have lousy court vision on defense. Unlike Davis, the effort seems fairly constant, but the recognitions and reactiosn are painfully slow. That may also be why Blount is at best a mediocre rebounder.
A while back one of the shrewd commenters on this blog proposed a large front line of Blount, KG, and Craig Smith. It's an intriguing thought, if only for a 3-4 change of pace on occasion. The danger is that Blount will rack up the fouls playing anywhere but the low block, or that teams with good ball movement and outside marksmen will carve up a large front line (remember what the Lakers Vlad Radmanovich did to Smith). And there is always a danger of tiring all your quality big men at the same time. But putting KG on the high block with the option of dishing to Blount for a 15 footer, going down low to Smith (who moves well without the ball) or enjoying the lack of double teams and taking it to the hole himself seems like a worthy experiment in the weeks ahead.
3) Quick hits
Speaking of moving without the ball, why is it that only KG seems able to find Trenton Hassell on cuts to the hoop or weakside corner jumpers? Are James and Davis not looking for Hassell, or is Hassell not moving as much when the backcourt guys have the rock? In any case, given his paucity of shots this season, opponents frequently lose Hassell in the flow, and the guy can shoot, with a higher FG percentage than anyone on the squad who is not a center or power forward. What's more, if Hassell is covered, he looks for KG first and foremost. (Come to think of it, maybe I just answered my first question in this paragraph.)
It has been too early to speculate about until now, but I'm not sure the chemistry between Randy Foye and Rashad McCants is going to be immediately copasetic once Shaddy returns from his microfracture injury sometime in January. Foye necessarily is a ball hog, meaning he plays best when he controls the orb--there isn't anybody on the team I'd rather have working the final play of a quarter or a game. Given that that is one of the precious few plums remaining to be had on a team with KG, don't expect McCants to concede the crunchtime alpha status to Foye. On the plus side, maybe Casey will declare that the one playing the best team defense will get preference off the bench.
Numerous times against New Jersey, Garnett set perimeter picks for James and Davis. Given how well Davis shoots coming off the curl, and given how well both men pass the ball, shouldn't there be more pick and rolls between the Wolves two best offensive weapons?