The Three-Pointer: 77-105
1. Coffin Nails
Eight games in, and Randy Wittman is already fast running out of tough guy rhetoric. After the Wolves followed up the glorious Phoenix win with the pratfall against Sacramento, Wittman jutted his jaw and vowed he'd find answers. Tonight, after his squad was undressed and paddled by the Rockets in Houston--77-105, with the lead ten points greater than that before garbage time--the coach variously said he'd only play 5 guys 48 minutes if that's all he could rely on, would have them walk the ball up the floor and call all the plays if that's what it took, and wondered aloud whether his players were collectively lazy or untalented (although he phrased it as a question of whether they won't respond or can't respond to what is being asked of them). Meanwhile, Jim Petersen is likewise scraping the barrel for ways to avoid saying this team is toast, blaming tonight's no-show on mental fatigue driven by the apparently crushing blow of having their beloved coach Dwane Casey fired. So quick, let's burn all the optimistic interviews and commentary--was it really only a couple weeks ago?--that sure sounded like celebration and relief that Casey had been axed.
At least Wittman will take on Ricky Davis. The team's second most-talented player didn't feel like exerting himself tonight, ringing up zero points and four turnovers in the first half, compelling Wittman to bench him early and then start Marko Jaric in the third period. Beside Jaric in the backcourt, Troy Hudson started at point in the third, an appropriate indictment of Randy Foye and, less so, Mike James. The Rockets' Rafer Alston is one of the few opponents James feels he can score on right now, and he came out aggressively. But his defense shows only the most minimal of improvements over the past week or two, baby steps in a journey that had so very far to go just to just be sufficient. It is as hard for fans and observers of this team to defend James's play as it is for James to defend opposing point guards.
You want goats, we've got a whole herd. Begin with Davis--3 points, 6 turnovers, 8 or 10 or 12 shameful performances thus far this season. When I opined a month or so ago that it seemed as if Davis had no honor, a commentor responded that that sounded harsh. It still does. But I haven't seen any reason to change my mind. Tonight's second goat is Mark Blount. Box score simpletons are going to tout Tracy McGrady's 32 points as Houston's leading contributor, but Trenton Hassell did a fairly good job on T-Mac, who shot 12-27 FG. Meanwhile, the aging vet Howard just toyed with Blount on the fringes of the paint, shooting 9-11 FG. Anyone who watched knows Howard could have matched T-Mac's point total with at most 8 more shots, so why laud the gunner when the more surgical assassin grabbed three more boards (tied with Mutumbo for team lead) and dished just one fewer assist than McGrady? Third goat goes to the Wolves's "braintrust," for not understanding how little of this is really Dwane Casey's fault.
2. Just two reliables
By a wide margin, the two best players on this team just happen to be the two left over from the halcyon days of 03-04. Kevin Garnett came out with a purpose tonight and demonstrated more grit and skill than Davis and Blount and James combined. His shot wasn't falling early, but he was grabbing rebounds, dishing shoulda-been assists that became clanked shots instead, but still worked hard the entire game. His numbers, 18-12-5, all would have risen dramatically if more of his teammates had a clue how to mentally prepare and then strategically perform out on the court. Imagine KG with a point guard who compels a double team on the perimeter, and who can get him the ball in places he likes it. (Hudson played fundamental pick and roll and had 5 assists in 9 minutes.) Imagine a banger underneath who would force Mutumbo off of Garnett and let him dominate Howard as has happened so many times in the past.
Then there is Hassell, the team's most consistent player thus far this year. Forced to chase McGrady around the perimeter, he grabbed zero rebounds and had one skinny assist in 30:51 and he was still more valuable than anyone but KG and perhaps Jaric for the way he worked on D, moved the ball on offense, had superb shot selection and didn't make a slew of stupid passes.
3. Bad stats
Almost exactly a year ago, on February 4, 2006, the Wolves got waxed, 77-109, by Golden State. Tonight, February 5, 2007, they fold it in against Houston. They lost the fast break battle, 0-17, and the points in the paint, 18-42. It could have been much worse, as Houston had 13 of its 17 transition points and 28 of its 42 paint points in the first half, and were content to spend the third and fourth quarters mostly jacking up jumpers in the half-court set.
Wittman certainly hinted at changes coming. Pick a scenario, any scenario, and it is probably being considered right now. Because the bloom is off even the rosiest of outlooks.