The Three-Pointer: Playing Like Losers
1. Self-Fulfilling Failure
In some respects last night's overtime loss to the team with the worst record in the NBA was worse than the Houston blowout a week ago. This wasn't a question of talent, or even of execution so much as timing and confidence, which is all to say that Minnesota played just badly enough to lose. Not to look horrible. Not to abandon all hope. But just badly enough to slowly and surely screw themselves further into the ground when it comes to imagining any sort of future for themselves.
This is a collective failure of will, an almost psychological need to prove yourself unworthy. Garnett, Blount, Davis, and Hassell all had a bevy of admirable plays that pleasurably rerun in the mind and make you think that there is something here worth holding firm. But then crunchtime lays bare the psyche. Garnett throws a skip pass out of the low post to the referee, and only pretends to pick up Mike Miller on the pick and roll. Hassell throws a bounce pass that even KG's Inspector Gadget arms have no chance of corralling. Blount commits a stupid turnover handing the ball off to James in a crowd by the sideline. And Davis ignores Wittman's instructions to get the ball to KG in the low block on the final play of regulation, almost jacking up his own shot, then dishing to Blount with no spacing, enabling Hakim Warrick to block the shot. These are all pieces of a crumbling basketball team, the "little things" you always hear about winning games turning into little things that lose them. Minnesota was up by 9 with 10 minutes to play; up by 6 with 8 to play; up by 4 with four and a half to play; and tied at the end of regulation. It wasn't one huge bone-headed thing; it was a team-wide, self-fulfilling failure.
2. Change James
Mike James is a different case than the other four starters because there is less good to cherish in his game this season and because the opportunities have been ample and extended and now long overdue for fulfillment. After 50 games, it is painfully obvious that James cannot do what is necessary in his current role under the status quo. The role and the circumstances have to change. Not starting is one obvious change. Having points rather than assists be the barometer of his performance would be another change. And demanding a little bit more on defense would be a third change.
The ongoing idea, reinforced under Wittman, seems to be that it is up to James to set up the others. It isn't going to happen. Only Blount among the five starters has less court vision and fundamental ball-movement basketball sense. In previous years, James seemed more comfortable being a bit of a gunner, a tad selfish. Give him that role, off the bench. But tell him that one place he can't be selfish is on defense, and that if he continues to matador it he will eventually see less time than Bracey Wright, who right now seems like a good model execution of his skill set for James to emulate.
So who plays the point? An important decision must be made between now and when the team comes back from the All Star break about whether you believe Randy Foye, surrounded by Garnett, Davis, and Hassell, or whoever you envision the next two years, can be your point guard of the future. If so, force feed it and abandon your already slim hopes for the playoffs. Run a lot more of that play where KG is in the low block and Foye dishes and cuts with Blount on the wing and Davis in the far corner. Run more pick and rolls with Foye and everybody on the team, but especially KG and Blount. Yank Foye not for bad passes vision-wise, but mentally risky passes. Allow him his selfish crunchtime confidence but yank him if he get too tunnel-vision on his shot the first three quarters. Blister him about lackadaisical defense, picking up his dribble too easily, and a plethora (not the expected one or two or even three) silly turnovers.
If the jury is still out on Foye as combo or off-guard, give Troy Hudson and Marko Jaric minutes according to matchups and strengths and run most of your offense through KG and Davis (in that order) in the half court sets. With Jaric at the point, promote a running game; with Hudson, spread the floor and encourage him to jack it up from outside the arc. Apportion minutes by performance and ride the hot hand.
3. Hit and run observations
What happened to resting players so they don't go 12-15 minutes a row? All five starters played the entire third quarter, and Blount, Garnett and James looked gassed in the 4th and OT.
February has recently been KG's worst month--the past two years before this, the Wolves have had a worse plus/minus with him on the floor than without him--and he isn't exactly performing well this Feb either. Lack of rest may be one factor, but another seems to be an inability to mesh with his teammates on defense. Is is age or trust that has KG being exposed on the pick and roll more than ever this season? It used to be that almost nobody could take him to the hole off the dribble. Not so this season.
I understand that Craig Smith had bad matchups out there, what with Warrick and Gausol and Johnson. But he would have matched up nicely with Roberts, and deserved more than 4 minutes in an overtime game. And playing Mike James 42 minutes and Marko Jaric less than 14, especially against Chuckie Atkins, someone Jaric can stay with, is a mistake. Remember what Kevin McHale always says about how "people get too hung up about what position a guy plays; it is just five guys working together so go out and play"? (That's a paraphrased quote.) Well consider that Atkins and Damon Stoudamire combined for 28 points, 8 assists and two turnovers while James and Foye were 12 points, 4 assists and five turnovers.
Haven't even discussed the two stats that jumped out at everybody: 24 Wolves turnovers and six total FTs versus 26 for the Grizz. The first problem is having a guy who can't play point guard setting up your offense, and the self-fulfilling failure just discussed. The second problem is partly a function of a hot Mark Blount, who is almost always open for that mid-range J on the drive and kick play, so teammates, especially Ricky Davis, feed him. It is almost always a high percentage shot (although let's note that Blount was 8 for his first 11 shots before sinking just 3 of his second 11 after tiring in the late third period and on into overtime) but it won't draw fouls going to the hoop.