The Three-Pointer: Glass 1/3 Full
1. Garnett: Appreciation #432
The Wolves suffered their third loss in a row coming out of the All-Star break Friday against Phoenix, then barely beat a Washington team that was 10-15 on the road, was missing both Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison because of injury, and spent a miserable couple of days battling the Minnesota snow, including a multi-hour stint on a Duluth runway after circling for 2 hours over the Twin Cities trying to land yesterday. I understand the glass is 2/3 empty. But I've never been a big fan of despair, martyrdom, or apathy, especially when it comes to pro hoops, so it's important to me to also focus on the stuff that makes the glass 1/3 full.
Specifically, a point in my last trey was entitled "Toasted Superstar" and referred to the mental exhaustion I noticed in Kevin Garnett, via his inability to dominate matchups in which he was clarly the superior player. That the opponents in question, Andray Blatche and Emet Okefor, were considerably younger was also mentioned. Then I went on KFAN with Chad Hartman, and, when pressed, acknowledged that if the goal of the Wolves franchise was to win a championship, trading Garnett was the only option because I did not foresee how they could rebuild quickly and thoroughly enough to do it during the remaining years of his career.
All this left me feeling lousy. I've always been a huge KG defender, and felt very comfortable at it, arguing on pure basketball grounds. Now I was wavering, caught up in the frustrations of this season, the inevitability of Garnett's timeline and the simple fact that I believe this franchise will miss the playoffs for a third straight season with him on the roster. I don't take back anything I said previously, in these Three-Pointers or on the radio. But it is also time--past time, as always for those of us who have learned to take this superstar for granted--for another appreciation of Garnett's game.
First of all, who is the second-best player on this season's Timberwolves? A case can be made that it is a four-way tie between the other current starters--Davis/Hassell/Foye/Blount (the way I'd order them if I had to)--which tells you all you need to know about what an undistinguished lot Garnett has to work with. Here's an exercise: Pick your own second-best player. Now ask yourself if you'd deal that player for the second best player on any of the other 14 Western Conference teams, strictly for what they can bring in the 2006-07 season and without factoring in what the Wolves already have or don't have in terms of that position on the court. I'm choosing Ricky Davis, but I could also lean toward Hassell or Foye. Nevertheless, here are the players I would trade for anyone but Garnett if I were assembling a roster and the remaining 25 games of this season and a potential trip to the playoffs were all that mattered:
San Antonio: Duncan/Parker/Ginobili
Utah: Boozer/Kirilenko/Deron Williams
New Orleans: Paul/Chandler/West
Golden State: Harrington/Biedrins/Pietrus
Memphis: Gausol/Mike Miller
Portland: Zach Randolph/Pryz/Roy/Webster
Seattle: Allen/Rashard Lewis
Every team has at least two players better than the Wolves's second best. I see only one close call here: Rashard Lewis with Seattle, who has been hurt and is pretty much a push with Davis in many ways (and no, I don't think either Chris Wilcox or Nick Collison are better). Some might say Biedrins (and Pietrus, for that matter) are still too raw this season, but I feel pretty good about what Biedrins has brought and in any case, GS has been hampered by injuries to their two best players, Baron Davis and Jason Richardson, so a case could be made that under normal circumstances, Biedrins is no better than their 4th best player.
But toting it up, I would trade the Wolves second-best player for the second-best player on every single Western Conference team, the third best player on half of those teams (7 out of 14) the fourth best player on two teams, and the fifth best player on Phoenix. That's the short-term supporting cast of these Wolves.
During the Wolves' weekend split--a 12-point loss to Phoenix on Friday night and this afternoon's 98-94 win over Washington--KG averaged 27 points, 18 rebounds and 2 assists. Against Phoenix, he constantly forced the action, making it difficult to believe anyone ever regarded him as too unselfish, registering zero assists and six turnovers while racking up more than twice as many points (and nearly four times as many rebounds) as any one of his teammates. When I asked him if it was purposeful, this lack of sharing, given that he did get 28 points on just 16 shots and went off for 44 the last time he played the Suns, he talked about needing to be aggressive and looking for his shot, while acknowledging that the team plays better as a unit when the ball is moving and everyone is involved. "It puts me sort of between a rock and a hard place," he concluded.
There was a lot of talk--by me included--about how well young Blatche played versus KG last time out, but this afternoon was no contest. Garnett was 26-17-4 in 35:58 versus Blatche's 6-6-1 in 31:56. What struck me was how much KG was going to the hole--when was the last time you remember him getting 6 buckets in the deep paint (3 dunks, a tip-in, a lay-up and a five-foot bunny) and 9 FTA in the same game? That was probably a main reason why, as Steve Aschburner noted to me after the game, that the Wolves were +16 with KG on the court and -12 during the 12:02 he didn't play. When I mentioned his paint-oriented focus after the game, Garnett said, "Witt's been on my ass lately about bringing a little more force and challenging me to find different ways to score. I'm trying it his way...he thinks I'm perfect and when I mess up he looks at me all weird and shit. I take it." A minute later, when asked if he wants Wittman to return as coach, KG paused a half-beat and then said, "Absolutely."
He also talked about boosting Foye's confidence with a pep talk, and also getting into Ricky Davis's face--RD's nickname is "Pretty Ricky," likely in reference to both the R&B group and his diva personality--a little bit with encouragement during the game. "Sometimes Ricky needs someone to say something real to him. He only respects a few people around here. Fortunately, I'm one of them."
2. Beautiful Backcourt
Whether it was Garnett's words, the snow-addled Wizards, or just time for an uptick, both Davis and Foye had strong games to complement the superstar. I'll take Pretty Ricky's six turnovers any time when he's nailing 11-17 from the field--nearly all of them smart shots--getting after it on defense, and making memorably gorgeous plays like the flick chest pass he delivered after Foye blocked a pass into Davis's arms and sped down the court in transition. In a blink, Ricky hit him in stride. As much as Davis aggravates, precious few players have that combination of nerve, finesse, and court instincts to display in a beautiful split second. Davis also gave Steve Nash all he could handle, blanketing his vision with dogged pressure and his 6-7 framed appendages as the Wolves jumped up on Phoenix early on Friday.
Wittman was right when he called Foye's effort "as good a floor game as he's played all year." Five first-quarter assists, spread around the floor to different teammates. A solid third quarter where he sank a trey and a deuce in three total attempts, grabbed three boards, dished two dimes and pocketed a pair of steals, all without stepping on the delightful two-man game Davis and KG had going. (In the second and third quarters combined, KG scored 20 of his 26, Davis 19 of his 27.) In the fourth period, Foye turned scorer, holding his assist total at 8 but leading the team with 6 points, including a pair of game-swinging free throws right after Mark Blount had coughed up two misses from the line with the Wolves up 2 with less than a minute to play. The steps are baby steps, and some will go backward, but overall Foye is a better point guard now than he was three weeks ago, and will be better three weeks from now.
3. Quick hits
I really do think the Wolves played well on Friday, never giving up after the Suns blew them out in the second quarter, 39-22. But there was an infuriating stretch in the third period of today's game, where Minnesota had stetched a 7 point halftime lead to ten with 8:21 to play, and the beleaguered Wiz appeared ready for their blowout. Then inexplicably, the Wolves chose to focus on posting Trenton Hassell up on Jarvis Hayes or feeding the ball to a stone cold Mark Blount on offensive, while allowing the streaky, and suddenly hot, DeShawn Stevenon to launch open treys at the other end. Just like that it was a tie game is less than two minutes. Fortunately, Washington was almost destined to lose this game, but it is this type of clueless, boneheaded decisionmaking and lack of recognition that makes you wonder who is the culprit behind the club's low composite court IQ this season.
Blount is making like the second coming of Felton Spencer with his proclivity for early fouls, and it is not a pretty sight. His jumper is also hinky at the moment--he was 4-15 FG today--and it may be time to invoke the Szczerbiak rule with the big galoot: If the jumper isn't going in the hole it is time to send the shooter to the pine. Especially when Craig Smith has awakened from his January somnambulance and is back to body-pinballing his way into putbacks, take-charges, and keeping balls alive for others to snare on the boards.
Emerging star Gilbert Arenas was a woeful 4-22 FG, clearly fatigue induced, as he was missing some fairly open long-range attempts. But one key to the win was the Wolves' ability to cut down on gifting him free throws. After ringing up a perfect 7-7 FT in the first period, he shot only five more the rest of the way. "Last time we gave him too many wide angles to the basket," Wittman opined. "Tonight we did a good job of clogging the lane."
Rashad McCants was +10 in just 4:13 of second quarter action this afternoon without scoring a point, grabbing a rebound or getting an assist. But Davis and Garnett were in a silky flow during his stint, and you wonder (hope?) that the offensive threat Shaddy provides cleared some spacing for the pair to go to work. McCants's second brief stint didn't go so well (-3 I think) but let's hope we don't have to wait for season garbage time like last year before McCants becomes a greater part of what the Wolves feature on offense. He's fitful and rusty, but still one of the precious few reasons to think pleasantly about this team's future in the next couple of years.