The Three-Pointer: Road Trip Disaster
1. Second-Guessing the Rotation
For the second straight game under new coach Randy Wittman, the Wolves dropped a winnable game, losing to the Sonics 100-102 after being up 5 with 71 seconds to play. Consequently, Wittman left himself wide open to second-guessing on at least two substitution decisions.
The first is leaving Craig Smith on the bench for the entire third period. I understand that Wittman doesn't want to tax players for more than a dozen minutes at a time whenever possible. But Mark Blount has hit a bit of a trough lately, and once again didn't match up well with Seattle's quicker, grittier interior players. Blount continues to be a Wolves' big who shows hard and persistently on the perimeter pick and rolls. But Seattle was using that virtue against him in the first period, first making the pass out of the double team and then the second pass to a cutter--often Blount's man but occasionally just a response to Blount's venture to the perimeter--for a layup. Meanwhile, they simply owned the boards in the first period, grabbing six rebounds to the Wolves eight on their own glass and all 10 possible rebounds after Minnesota misses.
Mark Madsen but then mostly Smith changed that dynamic in the second period. Unlike Blount, Smith has natural, split-second timing on knowing when to go to the hoop, especially when opponents are double-teaming KG, and he has surer hands than Blount and can catch most zipped passes on the move. Smith mixed it up in the paint, meshed better on defense, and kept rebounds alive that he himself didn't snatch. Suffice to say that he had 15 points on weakside cuts and putbacks from offensive rebounds in the second period alone, shooting 7-8 from the field.
But in the third, no Smith. Huh? The guy who essentially carried your ballclub in the second period and clearly was in a zone for this game, rides the pine the entire third quarter? Ironically, one way you knew certain Wolves players were unhappy with ex-coach Casey was when they dubbed him "anti-freeze" for his ability to cool them off when they were on a roll. (I know it means the opposite, but derogatory nicknames aren't always the work of sages.) True, Wittman did play him the entire fourth quarter, but Smith's return to brilliance with another 11 points and six rebounds merely ratifies that he should have gotten some burn in the third too.
Second, like Dwane Casey, Wittman apparently feels like it a sacrilege not to play Ricky Davis in crunchtime. Tonight, Trenton Hassell was having one of his fabulously nuanced games, shooting only when necessary but for a high percentage, battling for rebounds, and setting up his teammates in both the half-court sets and in transition--he finished with 8 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. And he put forth a yeoman effort on the Sonics' glorious Ray Allen, but Allen has that deadly accurate, hair-trigger jumper and has been the most prolific scorer in the entire NBA for most of this month. As it turned out, Marko Jaric had better success defending Allen in the 4th period. Ricky Davis, on the other hand, had one of those games where the highlights frequently showed him unsuccessfully rushing to close out on a shooter or trailing frantically as his man went for the hoop. Davis wasn't feeling it with his shot that much (4-11 FG, 2-6 from 3), and both Hassell and Jaric were passing the ball better (Jaric had 6 assists in 21:44, Davis 4 dimes in 36:42). So, why not alternate Hassell and Jaric on Allen and 6-7 Mickeal Gelabale, the rookie who bedeviled (mostly) Davis for 17 points (8-13 FG), including a crucial jumper with 29 seconds to go in the game? Why not let Davis sit for crunchtime this time? After all, one of the biggest reasons cited for Wittman taking over was that he was tougher, more of a disciplinarian, able to communicate more directly. I can't think of a better way to communicate with Davis than playing better options than his lackluster D when the game is on the line.
2. On the job training
No I'm not talking about Wittman here. Randy Foye had one of those nights a rookie combo guard is going to have while running the offense in crunchtime. Foye hit a couple of nice treys and was his usual confident, aggressive self in the fourth period tonight. But he had gooseggs for assists--nada, zip--against 4 turnovers in 26:50. One of those miscues was especially costly, an amateurish pass in which he couldn't stop his momentum when Luke Ridenour stepped into a passing lane and had the ball fall out of his hands as he tried to stop himself, with the Wolves up by just a deuce and 48 seconds left to play.
This isn't second-guessing why Foye was in and James was out--as I said in my last Three-Pointer, Foye needs to play crunchtime--just an acknowledgement that things will get dicey for Foye running the point when teams (properly) play him to try and create on his own.
3. KG: Very good and Not Very Good
How do you complain about a player who puts up 17 points, a team-best 10 rebounds, a team-best 9 assists, and a team best three steals during this game? Well, start with him being an integral part of the rebounding dysfunction of the first period. Continue with what has become a disturbing pattern of up-and-down defense. Garnett continues to not play the pick and roll with the kind of steadfast tenacity that marks almost every other aspect of his game. Tonight, he also let Gelabale get by him for a breakaway layup in the final minute while getting back on D. And he once again missed a do-or-die shot in the final seconds, proving that he is paying too much attention to critics who say he should be more selfish with the game on the line. I never said that: I defended Garnett playing the right way and going for the open man. On the final half-court possession tonight, KG did belatedly kick it out to Hassell for a rainbow prayer, but there was no flow in it because Gsrnett explored his own shot prospects so thoroughly first.