The Three-Pointer: Fiber to Grow On
1. The Sweet J of Mark Blount
Somewhere out there in Wolves land, television color announcer Jim Petersen (with an e instead of an o, folks, a mistake I too have made) is chortling mightily. Petersen has been hailing Mark Blount as the savior of the Wolves previously sorry center situation for the entire season now, and while I wouldn't say he's been right all along, he certainly looks prescient in light of Blount's recent play. I'd also stipulate that nobody on the roster has maxed out his potential as thoroughly as Blount this season. He was reliable for most of the first 25 or so games, with some minor backsliding into shoddy defense, stone hands, and penurious rebounding, but when you pulled back and looked at the big picture, he generally was making slow, steady improvement.
But in the past few games there has been a quantum leap forward, highlighted by tonight's exciting overtime win over the Spurs 103-101. Having already canned two mid-range jumpers, Blount missed with his third attempt three minutes and one second into the game. And with 7:37 left in the 4th quarter, Blount's jumper in the lane was blocked by Tim Duncan. Those were his only misses in 14 attempts; toss in 4 free throws and you've got a game-high 28 points. Let the curmudgeons note that he snared only 4 boards in 42 minutes; when you are close to unstoppable on offense--or at least efficient enough to put up 28 on 14 shots--you can leave the rebounding to KG (who had 17).
Blount took what the Spurs gave him. He was 6-7 from the field in the first half, with all but one of those bullseyes coming from at least 17 feet away. He was 6-7 from the field in the second half and overtime, with all but two of them coming from 13 feet in or less. You knew this quintessential catch-and-shooter was scorching hot when he put the ball on the floor, dribbled to his left and banged home an 17-footer in the final minute of the third period.
And for the second straight game, Blount was a positive force on defense, playing superstar Tim Duncan head-up in the paint for most of the game, resulting in a strong but not atypical night for Duncan who was stressed for his 24 points (more than for his 13 renbounds, four assists, and five blocks). It also resulted in a significant energy savings for KG, who rang up 27-17-7 with three blocks and four turnovers against mostly Robert Horry and Matt Bonner. Blount picked up only three fouls while pretty much holding his own against Duncan and helping to seal off penetration by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobelli. According to popcornmachine.net, his +9 was the second best total on the team. And he committed only one turnover in those 42 minutes. Well done.
2. Foye Seizing Point Guard Mantle
I've said all year that Randy Foye is not a point guard. Tonight was his best rebuttal thus far; better than the 7 assists he amassed in the embarrassing loss to the Spurs three weeks ago, when Minnesota got only 26 points in the second half and Foye thrived in garbage time. Tonight, he had only three dimes but each one was eye-opening both for its elan and anticipatory manuvering. Specifically, Foye dished off the dribble, passed in traffic down in the paint, and didn't pick up his dribble when San Antonio showed hard on the pick and rolls. The offense didn't bog while he surveyed the floor looking for openings; he made those assessments more rapidly and fostered a passing tempo more likely to make his teammates share the rock and move without the ball. In short, he acted like a point guard, and if he wasn't exactly Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, he also didn't turn the ball over once in 41:11 against arguably the best defensive team on the planet.
The question was asked of coach Dwame Casey after the game: Given the way Foye and Mike James are playing, isn't it time Foye became the starter? Casey replied that he figured that question was coming and pretty said he'd keep things the way they are. This is wise. As it is now, Foye is already the crunchtime point guard, playing more in the final period than any other stanza. As the team's big free agent signing and the feel-good story of an erstwhile journeyman who scrapped his way into a fine contract and a key role on a squad, Mike James needs the cloak of dignity, gossamer tho it may be, in being the starter. Yeah, there are games when he might be like the lunking 7-foot centers about a dozen teams used to start games a few years ago, who would then sit fairly quickly, rarely to be seen again. But you don't want to punt James's confidence (or raise Foye's already healthy ego) any further. The guy has some skills. If it turns out over the rest of the season that he's taken the money and run, there will be three more long years left to rip him. Meanwhile, he's got to start dedicating himself to defense and penetration (the treys are a rhythm thing that will improve with his comfort level). Because if and when McCants comes back, backcourt minutes will only become more precious, and James can't pull rank indefinitely. (BTW, he had 6 points, four fouls, one assist and two turnovers in a mere 16:26 out of a possible 53:00 tonight.)
3. The Bread and Butter and Three Other Quick Hits
The two clubs were within 5 points of each other from the 9:11 mark of the 4th quarter straight through overtime. During that time, Minnesota ran one play what seemed like about 80 percent of the time in their half-court sets. KG would set up about midway down the left block. Foye would dribble over, dump it off to him, and then cut to the hoop along the baseline. KG had the options of a give and go; or faking that and, while pivoting to face the basket, then dropping the ball off to a still driving Foye; or wheeling for his trademark outside shoulder turnaround jumper; or up-faking and then driving for the hoop himself; or surveying the court and dishing to another teammate left open by the reaction to two-man game he was playing with Foye; or simply waiting for Foye to come back around and freelancing off it again.
There are many advantages to this series, which is in the process of becoming (if it isn't already) the Wolves' bread and butter play. It puts Minnesota's three most dangerous offensive options into focus: KG on the left block, Foye driving to the hoop, and Mark Blount setting up on the weakside wing ready to catch and shoot his smoove jumper. It also spaces the floor nicely, with Ricky Davis usually camped over in the corner. The Wolves' didn't run it all that effectively tonight--Blount wasn't exploited enough when he was open, Davis missed a couple of wide open crunchtime jumpers, and San Antonio were tough hombres on both Foye and KG. But as Casey pointed out, the play does draw out the opposing big man who has to cover Blount, giving Foye (or KG) less tall timber to negotiate in the paint, and opening up space for the likes of Trenton Hassell to sneak in and grab an offensive rebound, as he did to seal tonight's game.
Speaking of Hassell, he had another beautiful peformance. Every game has a player-type whose selflessness and ability to do the "little" nuance things endear him to the purists, and Hassell fits that mold. He was the main reason Tony Parker scored only 19 points (7-15 FG for a guy traditionally among the league leaders in accuracy from the field) and dealt only 4 assists in 39:41. And he exploited the Spurs defensive weaknesses off the bench (Brent Barry and Michael Finley, for example), scoring nine of his 11 points in a span of less than two minutes toward the end of the opening period--a flurry that changed the complexion of the game by bumping the Wolves lead from 3 to 10 and forcing the Spurs to play catchup, and when they pulled even early in the 4th, they didn't have enough left to hang on in overtime. Kevin Garnett reminded me (and other reporters) in the locker room later that Hassell did the same pivotal thing in the second period of the Charlotte game when he went at Adam Morrison and exposed the rookie's defensive shortcomings.
With tonight's win, Dwane Casey is pretty much assured of hanging on to his job for the foreseeable future. After last month's fiasco against the Lakers, rumors were rampant that Casey would be canned, with many figuring the most likely time to this four-game homestand right after the holidays. Casey coached well tonight choosing one vet (Blount over Craig Smith) and one rook (Foye over James) for the preponderance of minutes at the two most tightly contested positions, point guard and center, on the ballclub.
Finally, I usually just let egregious officiating calls go. But I've got to say that tonight the Spurs, and in particular Ginobelli, got screwed twice in ways that could swung the game the other way. The first was on a Ginobelli layup that tied the score with 28 seconds left in regulation. Blount wacked him across the arm as he was shooting in a manner not only beyond dispute, but beyond the normal judgment parameters of do-you-or-don't-you let them play in the closing moments of a game. He got hacked, and nailed the bucket anyway. He should have been given the chance to put his team ahead.
The second time Ginobelli was jobbed by the refs is when he and Ricky Davis (who he thoroughly outplayed) got tied up heading back down the floor after a Spurs hoop and got chippy as they both went down. Davis threw an elbow and Ginobelli responded in kind. So far, so good. But then when Ginobelli was trying to get up, Davis, who seemed to be waiting for that to happen while on the floor himself, dove at his legs and submarined him off his feet. Play was stopped, people jawed and stared a little, and the refs assessed Davis and Ginobelli a techinical apiece. But Davis clearly committed two infractions. Rather than boot him with two T's, I would have kept the one tech apiece and awarded a personal foul to Davis. At the time, Minnesota was up two with 1:41 left in overtime.