The Three-Pointer: Imploding
1.The Randy Wittman Show
Sometimes he's been wry, sometimes rueful, sometimes angry, sometimes circumspect, but if Randy Wittman's Timberwolves are going to continue losing 9 out of every 14 games they play, and especially if they include such abominable, belly-up displays like tonight's blowing of a 17-point lead in a 95-100 home loss to a 20-33 Eastern Conference team like the Charlotte Bobcats, he's going to run out of ways of pretending to be in charge as the franchise crumbles under the corrosive chemistry in the locker room and the unremitting boredom displayed by those expected to be once and future fans.
Wittman knows that deadpanned platitudes and oblique criticism didn't work for his predecessor--and he had a .500 record. Thus, as the Wolves continually make liars out of their Owner and Personnel Veep by not being a juggernaut of consistency clambering up the playoff-seed ladder, it becomes incumbent upon him to do variations on the theme of exasperation. The catch is that Wittman's hands are tied--the roster is the roster, and will remain so unless a deal is swung before tomorrow's trading deadline. He may monkey a little with minutes to ostensibly send a message, but even Greg Popovich doesn't have any more than two or three players in his doghouse at a time--and Larry Brown proved with last year's Knicks that even the best coaches crash and burn when they publicly embarrass more than half the team. So it was a few weeks ago when Witt took special aim at his guards, threatening to shake up the rotation, only to reverse himself the very next day and say that the real problem was that he hadn't made it clear enough what he wanted--that, essentially, it was a communication issue and that he was at fault. Uh huh.
In the growing pantheon of Wolves 2006-07 losses, tonight was the worst on Witt's watch, and ranks second only to the epic Lakers loss when the Wolves were outscored 7-34 at home in the 4th quarter. Minnesota had 19 assists versus just 5 turnovers while shooting 63.4% to build a 58-45 first half lead. In the second half they shot 29%, squeezing out two assists--zippo in the 4th quarter--while committing 7 turnovers. It was the kind of performance that might even have compelled Dwane Casey to push past cliche in his postgame comments. What wrinkle would "take no prisoners," "no nonsense" Wittman come up with to show that this time he really was going to grab the wheel, or find the directions, or broil a newt's eye, and get this thing turned around once and for all?
"Our frame of mind was focused on `me' rather than 'we,'" Wittman began..."we got caught up in 'Am I getting enough shots? Are they running plays for me?' That's what happened to us tonight. We stopped playing... they outhustled us." In other words, the coach was calling his players selfish and lazy. It would have been more effective if he had named names, and to the discredit of myself and other members of the assembled media, we didn't ask him to. I did wonder out loud whether using playing time as a cudgel and being this specific in his criticism with them directly might cause him to "lose the team."
"Our record is 25 and 29," Witt replied. "I'm not worried about losing my team, I'm trying to find guys who want to play. I want five guys who are going to play for the team, not to score 16 points and get 10 rebounds. I would rather lose that way than the way he lost tonight...I am tired of guys pouting on the court during a game, worried about not getting enough minutes or enough touches. We didn't go down fighting tonight."
So, I said, There will be changes? "I don't know," the coach replied, feeling the rock and the hard place getting tighter.
2. A Toasted Superstar
Kevin Garnett looked mentally exhausted sitting on the bench during timeouts. Sometimes he stared into space, sometimes he seemed to be talking to himself, gesticulating slightly to make his points. The past two games, including Tuesday's loss at Washington, KG has gone 26-13-1 and 22-11-2; pretty fair stats for most, but a sign of trouble in this context for the Wolves.
Neither the Wizards nor the Bobcats had anyone who should have matched up well with Garnett--these are the kind of games he traditionally has dominated, in ways that eclipse his gaudy stats. But for the past two nights, Garnett looked better on paper than he did on the court. Against Washington, the Wizards were without captain Antawn Jamison (a guy KG has always owned) and subbed in Andray Blatche, a 20-year rookie starting just the third game of his pro career. But as Washington raced out to a 31-19 first quarter lead that held up throughout the game and set the tone for the entire game, Blatche delivered 5pts-6rbs-2asts to KG's 4-3-1, at worst playing the superstar to a draw, on a matchup the Wolves needed to dominate to spring the upset on the road. Tonight the opposing power forward was Emeka Okefor, who is 6 years younger and three inches shorter than KG--and outhustled him, especially in the second half. When it was over, Okefor grabbed an amazing 11 offensive rebounds, and 19 overall, chipping in 12 points and three rebounds. Those offensive boards (the Wolves entire team had 6) were a major reason why Charlotte held a 22-6 advantage in second-chance points.
Anyone watching the game would have to say that the major storyline involved the fabulous shooting of Bobcat rook Adam Morrison, who went off for 26 points in the last 16:50 of the game. Some were wide open looks, but many others were well contested by Marko Jaric, Ricky Davis, or Trenton Hassell--it probably didn't matter who the Wolvew threw on him. After a scoreless first half, Morrison got hot and became unstoppable. But the constant, the things that kept the Bobcats close enough for Morrison to eventually make the difference, was Okefor's tireless work on the glass against Garnett and Mark Blount.
One silver lining: With 7:02 left in the second quarter and the Wolves up 34-32, Wittman reinserted KG back into the game alongside four subs who for various reasons had received precious little meaningful playing time over the past month: Rashad McCants, Mike James, Craig Smith, and Marko Jaric. Suddenly everything clicked: the ball movement was purposeful and generous, the spacing well-spread, the sweet mixture of patience and aggression achieved, the trust and communication self-evident on defensive rotations. The Wolves outscored the Bobcats 24-13 in that span and KG wasn't the leader in any category--James had more points, Smith more boards, McCants and James more assists--but still, obviously, the leader. There was an element of happiness and energy in his step, unstained by bullshit.
After the second half collapse, Garnett was gone from the arena in a flash--it wasn't clear if he'd even had time to shower. Tomorrow is the trading deadline, and it is very unlikely that KG will be dealt. But a reckoning is drawing nigh, becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.
3. A Sprained Dog and Who Wants to Start at the Point?
Mark Madsen suffered what by all accounts appears to be a severe ankle sprain and will be out indefinitely. With Eddie Griffin in limbo, Mad Dog's malady makes a trade for a big man in exchange for one of Minnesota's plethora of swing men seems inevitable.
Meanwhile, both members of the Wolves starting backcourt, Randy Foye and Ricky Davis, both were held to single-digit scoring. But what is more alarming is that Foye and Mike James seem to have exchanged personalities. Now it is Foye who looks tentative and preoccupied by the prospect of fulfilling all his starting point guard duties; and James in thrall to the freedom of cutting loose when inserted off the bench, especially in drives to the hoop. What has become obvious is that Foye and James are two of the four point guards on the roster (the others are Troy Hudson and Marko Jaric) who aren't really point guards at all, in the classic sense. Each possess qualities desired in a typical top-notch point, and each has a glaring weakness that contributes mightily to inconsistency. Yet another, among too many, of the reasons why this organization needs to be active today in at least providing some semblance of positional balance on the roster.