The Three Pointer: Damaged Control
1. Ricky's Rebellion
With 8:40 to play in the 3rd quarter and the Wolves down by 2 to Detroit at home tonight, Ricky Davis made a bad pass that led to a steal and a transition layup for the Pistons. One second after the ball went through the hoop, the Wolves called timeout and Coach Dwane Casey benched Davis in favor of Randy Foye. Davis was livid. As Casey and his club talked about game strategy, Davis appeared about the bolt from the bench and head for the locker room, only to be pulled back by a teammate going back to his days in Boston, Justin Reed. As he lingered with tense body language, Bracey Wright came over and wrapped an arm around his waist and talked to him. These things deterred him for a moment, but just before play was resumed as the Wolves took to the court, Davis walked along the baseline and out the middle aisle toward the locker room. Assistant coach Rex Kalamian and then Reed soon followed. Within a few minutes, all three returned individually, with Davis the last of the trio to come back.
For the rest of the game, Davis pouted on the bench. While others were leaning forward, most of them involved in the game, he leaned back and affected nonchalance. When the team huddled, he remained standing on the perimeter. He talked some with the players sitting by him near the end of the bench--Hudson, Reed, Jaric and McCants in street clothes, sometimes Mark Blount. It became an extremely exciting and highly competitive game, with Kevin Garnett tossed for a setto with Antonio McDyess and the game going double overtime before the Wolves ran out of steam, 98-104, and in the more exciting moments, Davis occasionally lent encouragement to a couple of players, especially Blount, another longtime teammate extending back to Boston, but was clearly the least animated player on the bench.
But here's the crux of it: After a couple of timeouts and various player substitutions, two different people I consider to be highly reliable and literally in a position to know what they were talking about, told me independently of each other that Davis was refusing to go back into the game. In between the time the first and the second person passed along this information, I saw co-captain Trenton Hassell get up during a timeout and come over and say some things in Davis's ear. I couldn't see if Davis responded to him, but saw Hassell return to his spot on the bench when the players going back in sit together. Then, after the second person had told me about Davis's refusal, I saw assistant coach Randy Wittman come over to Davis during another time out and seem to ask him something. In their exchange, Davis seemed to do most of the talking, and Wittman, holding eye contact and looking like a man receiving unpleasant news, returned to his end of the bench.
Davis was gone from the locker room after the game. I asked Reed why Davis was so angry in the 3rd quarter and he replied that Davis was just angry at himself. Mark Madsen said that the team was sticking together all for one and no one was going to take a small thing and blow it into a big thing. Then I caught Wittman as he was walking by and asked him point blank if Ricky Davis had refused to go back into the game. Wittman looked stricken, said "Coach Casey is having a press conference about the game right now," and ducked into the coach's chambers. Casey would not emerge for his press conference for another five minutes.
Once there, I asked the coach what had happened with Davis. He replied that he thought Davis had lost focus and needed to be replaced, and said he did not feel like he should put Davis back in the game. After a few more questions about other things, I persisted by saying that with all due respect it felt like something more than Davis simply losing focus; that he left the bench shortly after that and then was visited by Hassell and Wittman, and never came back into a double overtime game when the team had already lost KG. He replied that Davis took a bathroom break--which has happened in the past, but he never needed Kalamian and Reed to help him before--and then said with some exasperation that maybe I should have been in the huddle to hear what was said.
I felt like I was being spun, with a little pressure to accept Casey's version of events. I still feel that way. I don't believe Casey lied to me, but I think he preferred to leave out large chunks of context. Otherwise, we have to believe that with Garnett ejected with 5:18 to go in a tie ballgame, he decided to ride with the likes of 6-3 Bracey Wright, 6-4 Randy Foye, and 6-2 Mike James guarding the whippet quick and athletic Rip Hamilton, who stands 6-7, rather than the 6-7 athlete Ricky Davis, who is normally second on the team in minutes to KG. He decided to ride with those guys through a solid 15:18--the rest of the 4th and two five-minute overtimes--when it was clear that those players as well as Trenton Hassell were becoming fatigued. This was a game where the slightest advantage could have tilted the outcome in Minnesota's favor, and indeed, down the stretch, Casey was subbing Mark Madsen and Craig Smith in and out on every possession to take advantage of Madsen's defense and Smith's offense. But he couldn't put his second most-talented athlete back in the game because that player had lost focus. And he made this decision independently, without any knowledge that Davis might be refusing to go back in.
Maybe the two people who told me Davis was refusing to reenter the game somehow were mistaken, and misinterpreted what they heard and saw. Maybe Davis didn't tell Wittman he wasn't going back in. Maybe Casey did decide that a bad pass in the third quarter was the last straw and it was time to teach Ricky Davis a big lesson and not allow him back into a double overtime game. That was certainly the way Dwane Casey was wanting me to look at tonight's events. After the press conference, I told him that I was going to report what I saw and was told, and that it didn't square with his spin. For all concerned, me and the team, it is a matter of credibility--doing what we have to do with what we know.
2. Garnett's Ejection
Antonio McDyess flattened Madsen with a forearm to the back of the head and shoulders going for a rebound with the score tied and 5:18 to play. In defense of his teammate, KG got in McDyess's face, and jawed a quick bit, then crossed the line by throwing the ball at him and throwing what appeared to be a few dog paddle punches, backpeddling after the first one. I only caught the tail end of one replay, plus the original incident, of course, so those of you watching the game at home probably have a better handle on what happened than I do. What I know is that the old hockey ploy of a bit player suckering a star into a brawl that will get them both ejected was unwittingly accomplished by the Pistons. After the game, Casey steadfastly claimed that the incident was "not a fight," and to the best of my knowledge, no punches were landed. But the game received national exposure being broadcast live on ESPN, and the NBA has responded harshly to (admittedly more severe) altercations at other points during this season. Maybe tossing KG for this game--probably depriving the squad of a win--will be punishment enough. But I doubt it.
3. Hat's Off to Those Who Finished
With KG ejected and Davis sitting out, Trenton Hassell assumed the mantle of team leadership with his all around play, never sitting the entire second half en route to a whopping 51:06 of playing time. Randy Foye again demonstrated that he is a player who must be reckoned with at the most crucial points of the game. Mike James hit a huge, closely guarded shot that looked as if it might be enough to win the first overtime before the Wolves made the mistake of not fouling immediately and allowing Billups to bury his own trey to send the game into a second OT. Mark Blount grabbed 15 boards, got to the line ten times, committed just one turnover, and had 22 points in a marathon 45:35 of play. Madsen scrapped.
It wasn't enough. And now a five game road trip.