The Three-Pointer: Not Ready
1. Par For the Course
As the starting lineups to tonight's Hawks-Wolves game were concluding, I said to the people around me in press row at the Target Center, "They [the Wolves] are taking this game for granted. Let's see if they're right or not."
They were wrong. Beating Detroit and nine other teams over the past 13 games didn't automatically mean they could mail it in versus Atlanta and walk away with a victory. Instead, they got waxed by a 12-23 team 88-105, and the score was closer than the spectacle. Ranked dead last among 30 NBA teams in field goal percentage, the Hawks shot better than 50% in each of the four quarters, finishing at 54.3% and 53.8% from beyond the three-point arc.
But what's significant is that the Wolves were so obviously loose and confident during the pregame warmups, in a manner slightly different than their usual mien. Another media member who likes to get the pregame mood in the locker room said there too the players were uncommonly relaxed and giddy. There's a fine line between enjoying the fruits of your labors and pacing yourself properly over the season's marathon grind, and lulling yourself into the unspoken but insidious perception that you can still win a ballgame with your second or third-best effort.
Bottom line, the Wolves were arrogant and lazy tonight and consequently had their asses handed to them by a pretty bad team.
At this point I should be working myself into a state of righteous indignation, at the very least on behalf of the poor fans who forked over good money to make this one of their few (or perhaps only) chances of the year to watch the team in the flesh. Because they got screwed. But there's a part of me that knows this happens to every team at some point in the season, and that the circumstances made the chance of it happening to the Wolves tonight especially ripe. You want to blame coach Dwane Casey for not having his squad mentally ready, you've got cause, but hopefully you also just credited him for the incredibly sharp performance his team put on at both the start and the finish of a rare afternoon weekday game against a tough team on the road. Knowing that I gave most of the credit to the players for that inspiring win, I'm feeling more charitible toward Case than I did in that brutal 4th quarter of the meltdown loss to the Lakers, or even that awful win at home against the 76ers. After tonight's game, the coach revealed that he warned his squad in practice today that Atlanta had already beaten Cleveland and Orlando this season, and shouldn't be taken lightly.
That said, if the Wolves miss out on the playoffs or something similarly significant by a one-game margin, here's one to highlight in neon.
2. Naming Names
As mentioned in Point 1., I'm relatively blase about the putrid effort put forth by the Wolves, because it was ballooning hubris just waiting to be pricked. Now that it has been, we'll see if the lesson has been learned or if the vaunted chemistry folks at this site began referring to recently was more happenstance that willpower. In the meantime, there was abysmal game played and those culpable deserve to be called out.
That includes all five starters, the backbone of the recent winning streak. Start with Kevin Garnett, who was cold from the field and befuddled by Atlanta's collapsing zone defense, which bothered him with its arms-up length. But overall, KG lacked his trademark intensity, especially on defense, where he was housed by the likes of Zaza Pachulia. He grabbed six offensive boards among his 13 total but still only shot 6-15 FG. He also endured the slight humiliation of remaining in the game a good 5-6 minutes longer in the second half in order to continue his (now) 359 straight games of scoring in double figures. Everyone knows about the streak, everyone knows KG would not publicly say he needs to remain in the game until he has continued the streak, and everyone knows that Casey would be taking a large risk if he rested Garnett in a blowout before the double figures were accounted for. It is the coach's way of displaying respect for the superstar, and appropriate all the way around--even KG's pride in keeping it going. But when his performance is such that he needs to milk time, he also merits our chiding.
On to the others. Mike James continues to play inexplicably horrible defense. It's inexplicable because James isn't doing a particularly good job distributing or shooting the ball or otherwise providing leadership in the backcourt, and one would think he would try to atone for those deficiencies the easiest way possible, which is to bust his butt guarding people. Mark Blount also had a tough night on defense, but mostly because the matchups were bad for him with Atlanta's smallish bigs, which did enable Blount to amass 16 points and 11 rebounds (and, alas, 5 turnovers), including 14-8 in the first half. Still, that's two less-than-stellar defensive performances for Blount, who was up to his old indecision around the paint in the overtime win against Detroit.
Trenton Hassell had a marvelous passing night, dishing for 7 assists. And he was not at fault for all of Joe Johnson's 25 first-half points, as Casey foolishly deployed a zone defense at a time when JJ was light's out from the perimeter and another long-range sharpshooter, Salim Stoudamire, was also in the contest. That said, Hassell didn't dig in on Johnson the way I've seen him play Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant. Johnson was getting free and hitting bombs, and when Hassell upped his effort, Johnson began shooting in transition and earlier on the shot clock. Put it this way, when Johnson is 10-13 FG in the first half while his teammates are a collective 13-30, the defensive stopper assigned to stop him gets a blemish.
Which leaves Ricky Davis, whose numbers were down across the board: 13 points, 2 rebounds, one assist in 32:28, with defense that was, ah, better than James could muster. Finally, for some reason Davis and Craig Smith don't seem to work well together, which is odd, because Davis can distribute and Smith moves well without the ball. Perhaps it is that Smith overcompensates for Davis's defensive lapses with too-aggressive rotations, or that the pair can't seem to get their spacing right. Or maybe this is all in my imagination.
3. Wishful Rumor Mongering
What I am about to propose has no basis in reporting other than confirming on the hoopshype.com salary page that this proposed deal was feasible: Marko Jaric for Indiana center Jeff Foster, even-up. Having just gotten Dunleavey and Murphy from Golden State for Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson, the Pacers would do well to readjust their balance by shedding a big man and adding a defensive-oriented swingman. Foster would be a perfect fit on the Wolves playing 12-15 minutes a night backing up Blount at center and 5-10 minutes backing up KG at the 4. He's a smart, diligent rebounder who doesn't need touches, plays good D, likes the dirty work and won't complain about his role. Just a thought.