The Three-Pointer: Solid Win Before the Break
1. A Smart Rotation
There were about a half-dozen reasons to take heart from tonight's 99-94 win over Denver before the NBA pauses for its all-star game break, and the umbrella nurturing most of them was coach Randy Wittman's substitution rotation.
Wittman's hooks were quick, decisive, and purposeful. They didn't rely upon recent past performance--Marko Jaric, whom Stephen Litel pointed out to me had a team-best +31 over the last five games, logged just 6:50, while nine others finished with double-digit minutes played--or some predetermined pattern. And for the first time in a long long time, every one of them seemed to make sense.
Two mismatches dominated the early going: Classic point guard Steve Blake was schooling Randy Foye two out of every three possessions and Nene was having his way butt-backing Mark Blount down in the paint and diving toward the hoop on KG. So Wittman yanks Foye after just 6:37 (Blake already with 5 assists and zero turnovers, Foye with one assist, two turnovers) and the Wolves down 9-20. With Davis at the point, the ball doesn't automatically rotate through KG or Ricky Davis every time, although James is also looking for his shot more. The Wolves nearly double their point total in three minutes. With 1:59 to play, Madsen subs in for KG; by quarter's end, the Wolves whittle the lead down to five.
Coming off the bench to start the second period, Davis is the only starter left playing, and he sits after 23 seconds in favor of Rashad McCants. Wittman gives 8 guys at least 5 minutes of second quarter play, sits Trenton Hassell for the entire period despite Carmelo Anthony playing more than 9 minutes, and has the starters plus McCants in for an 11-2 over the final 3:13 that gives the Wolves their first lead of the game just before the halftime buzzer. At the half, five different Timberwolves had between 6 and 8 shot attempts.
I won't keep going with this kind of detail for the second half, but the other two points in this trey will provide plenty of examples. Suffice to say that at the end of the game, Wittman focused on those who statistically had bad games, like Randy Foye and Ricky Davis, stepping up and maintaining their effort and keeping their poise. I think a large part of it was that Wittman put the players in a position to succeed, but it often was also a circumstance that required his trust in them, circumstances when each of 9 players could look back and legitimately feel that he had contributed to this win. There was also some tough love and hurt feelings, and that too was a good thing.
2. Succumbing to Optimism About the Future
Loyal fans follow a team the way thrill-seekers shoot the rapids: fully engaged and alert to every nuance of both the plunges and pinnacles, partially remembering the lessons and patterns that have recently transpired, but mostly caught up in the ride. For all the times you can appropriately contemplate the Wolves almost-certainly dreary future prospects, you also need the giddy, full drinking in of the team's blossoming, perhaps fleeting, synergy.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that McCants and Foye gave a taste tonight of two young potentially special talents simultaneously on the court, a happenstance that the Timberwolves haven't had since Garnett and Marbury. Shaddy's latest stride was a large one, made with dogged and canny defense as much as his explosive scoring. He played more than half the game--24:44, and was a team-best +11. His 12 points on 8 shots (5-8, including 2-4 from 3 territory) made him the club's most efficient scorer.
Instead of riding his starters for almost all of the third period, Wittman subbed in James for Foye at 4:51, Madsen for Blount at 3:03, and, right in between, McCants for Davis at 4:07. But McCants not only finished out the third, but stayed in for the first 8:55 of the final quarter--a 13-minute span--as Davis sat for 9 minutes and then spelled Hassell. During that season-high stint for McCants, the Wolves were +4 and McCants did a better than average job during the times he was the primary defender on Melo Anthony. Even giving up four inches, he often bodied Melo and wouldn't let him pivot. One time he "pulled the chair" and watched Melo fly away by his own momentum from a pass coming his way. In response to praise about his defense after the game, McCants said, referring to his layoff, "I've had 7 months to see tendencies, what [opponents] like to do, and figure out how to play it. Now that I am moving laterally [on his surgically repaired knee] I'll get better."
A guy with McCants's physical talent talking about being a defensive student of the game--with KG the obvious role model--is music to the ears of any Wolves fan. Ditto his performance tonight.
The positives demonstrated by Foye were more subtle, but at least equally important. Once again James was doing a better job running the ballclub in the second half, and there was a legitimate question of whether Foye would reenter the game in the 4th period. But Wittman brought him back with 5:18 to play and the Wolves down by 5. The question loomed: With KG, Davis, and McCants as options (joined a minute later by Blount), would Foye feed the firepower, or stake his claim as crunchtime alpha dog with a more selfish shot selection?
The first thing he did was clank a jumper--but grabbed his own rebound and zipped it to McCants, who missed from long range. Next time down, good ball movement got Davis a nice look, but his trey was off target. Yet the Wolves, with McCants on Melo, was stopping them at the other end. On Minnesota's ensuring possession, Foye drove for a layup. Next time down, he dished to Mark Blount for a successful 21-foot jumper. The Ricky Davis reprised his court kinship with Blount by feeding him for a couple of sweet jumpers and the Wolves were up by one with 1:28 to play. After an important stop at the other end, Foye went alpha dog, deploying his patented, right lane scoop hook over Camby's outstretched arms, banking it in for a 3-point Wolves lead with 23 seconds to play. It was all over but the obligatory fouls and free throws.
Asked in the locker room if he'd thought about distributing the ball to his prolific teammates or taking the shots himself, Foye talked about setting the defense up with passes and his own jumpers. "I got my [second] layup because of what I did before," he said. And so would he keep shooting the j if the defense didn't try and take it away? "Oh no, that's my rep--going to the hole," Foye said with a smile. "You may see me shoot jumpers earlier, but when the game is on the line, you take it inside."
Minnesota outscored Denver 12-4 over the last three minutes. During that stretch, Kevin Garnett had two boards, some great help defense, zero assists, zero field goal attempts, and two made free throws. Blount had 6, Foye had 4, Davis had two dimes. And McCants was biding his time, which will come, on the sideline.
3. James Emerges, Blount Pouts, Both Contribute
Who knows why Mike James does not consider himself worthy as a starter, but goes to the tenacious side of Jekyll/Hyde when coming off the bench? James jacked up 13 shots in 23 minutes tonight and made only four of them. Wittman was extremely, and rightfully, pleased. "I'll take those shots every game, those were all good shots," he enthused. That's because James played with pep, flowing free, jonesing for the hoop on drives, suddenly rising up and flicking off threes when the opponents backed off him, and generally looking like he knew what he was doing out there--it was pleasant, but unfamiliar. And who was this dude pressuring Steve Blake in the second half, playing a significant role in turning Blake's 11/0 assist to turnover ratio in the first half into 7/6 in the second? A stint in the third and early fourth quarter may be the best on ball defense we've seen from James thus far this season. Who is this guy? A player born to sub in, apparently.
Meanwhile, Mark Blount played as if he wanted the final score to be 170-168. Blount had five more shots and four more makes than anyone on the ballclub, going 11-19 FG in less than 32 minutes, mixing some of his recently entertaining double-pumps and lane drive-bys, replete with heavy mustard on the body english, in with a bevy of those sweet jumpers, often flashing to his kill zone between the top of the arc and the free throw line, where Davis knows he's going. Count up 24 points in all, including the crunchtime points that enabled Foye to secure the victory.
On defense, Blount was also an offensive force. First he allowed Nene to run roughshod on him, with at least half of Nene's 6-6 FG in the first period being back-you-down paint jobs. Then, in the third period Eduardo Najera, the 6-8 Mexican forward who has all the grace of a dump truck but plays with a keen intelligence and nonstop motor, was fed passes as he cruised right past Blount for easy layups on two straight possessions, extending a five-point Nuggets lead to nine with 3:04 to play in the third. Wittman called a timeout, glared at Blount, and jerked his thumb for Mark Madsen to replace him. It was an in-your-face scolding, a tough love message for the entire team but specifically Blount.
Blount is a proud veteran who doesn't take criticism well or lightly. I sense that one reason he got so enthused at the end of the Boston win was because he was royally ripped by the Beantown media and treated badly by the Celtic coaches. In any case, he was clearly pissed as he went to the bench. He exchanged some words and commiserated with Davis and also Troy Hudson and Justin Reed. (There is a tight camaraderie among the three ex-Celts, Blount-Reed-Davis, that has threatened to damage overall team chemistry whenever Blount and/or Davis are unhappy with the coaches and their recent handling. It is the downside of the beautiful chemistry Davis and Blount have on offense when playign together.) But Blount performed like a veteran pro when Wittman summoned him back into the game with 4:07 to play. Nevertheless, when he was swapped out for McCants in order to improve the Wolves' 3-point defense in the final seconds, he took a roundabout route away from Wittman to the end of the bench. And he was (hopefully) showered and gone just minutes after the game, a speedy exit that rivalled those of the legendary Christian Laettner back in the dysfunctional days when Laettner and Chuck Person used to criticize each other loudly when the other was nearby, until Laettner decided to never be nearby anybody after a game.
Wittman seemed to know that his big man was disgruntled, and three or four times cited Blount for praise. Once he said that Blount had had some rough patches on defense and included him along with Foye and Davis as those who had fought through doldrums to come up big later. Other times he excused Blount's lapses by noting that the main goal was ensuring that Melo earned every point he got and didn't go off for a huge game; that the big men were charged with helping ensure Melo was uncomfortable. Asked about Wittman and Blount after the game, KG chose to emphasis this latter point about the bigs having Melo as the priority, and otherwise vaguely siding with the idea that Blount was just doing what he was told. Part of this is true. And Anthony missed more than half his shots (10-21 FG), had 4 turnovers and a relatively quiet 28 points. But it is also true that Blount was torched by Nene in the first quarter, embarrassed by Najera in the third (or at least should have felt embarrassed) and properly chastised, via benching, by Wittman for those lapses. It was all part of Wittman's, and the Wolves's, best all around performance since the upset in Phoenix more than two weeks ago, and allows fans a little peace of mind going into the all star break.