The Three-Pointer: The Breaking Point
Note: I'm going to tape the Dallas game tonight while I check out Bobby Previte at the Walker; and don't imagine I'll be posting a trey on Super Bowl Sunday. So, please use this thread for your comments on the Mavericks game as well as the loss to the Hornets.
1. James and Foye and Jaric, oh my
The statute of limitations on patience with point guard Mike James finally seems to have run out. The Wolves broadcasting team of Jim Petersen and Tom Hanneman, Fox Sports analyst Mike McConnell, me, you, and everyone else watching Chris Paul immediately settle into a comfort zone against James's maddeningly tepid play last night in the Wolves 83-90 loss to the Hornets were all thinking the same thing: Time to sit this joker down. J-Pete put a good spin on it, noting that James coming off the bench would then at least be playing against opposing scrubs like Jannero Pargo rather than an obviously superior stud like Paul. And McConnell chimed in after the game that he saw James light up the scoreboard plenty of times in Toronto last year and wonders if he might be the microwave off the pine rather than force feed him as a playmaker any more.
Me, I just think it is time to alter this excruciating, dysfunctional pattern. Maybe that means telling James he has ten games of crunchtime ball to prove he belongs on the court, then playing him in the 4th quarter either beside or instead of Randy Foye, just to see if a little infusion of faith will give him a pulse. Or maybe you tell James that Troy Hudson has been keeping his seat warm at the far far end of the bench, and that is where he will stay for awhile as Huddy and Foye handle the point; see if a little shock treatment can jumpstart his intensity.
And yes, it has come to that. James was back-peddling into his own players as Paul dribbled down the floor on the break, keeping almost a perfect 8-10 foot distance right through to the time Paul pulled up for a jumper or just slowed the pace and leisurely surveyed the floor with plenty of time left on the shot clock. For the second game in a row, the Wolves' lack of defensive pressure enabled an opponent to play turnover-free ball for the entire first quarter while running up a lead that would set the tone for the rest of the game. That defensive lethargy starts with James, the team's most consistent weak link on D.
At the other end of the court, James didn't have the luxury of his teammates bailing him out this time. Kevin Garnett maintained the funk that has enveloped him since the Phoenix extravaganza. He got shoved around by David West and bodied up neatly by defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler and was incredibly ineffective for a guy who finished with 17 points on 8-16 FG. Ricky Davis almost single-handedly kept the Wolves close in the first stanza, hitting five of his first seven shots. Unfortunately his last field goal of the game occurred with 2:41 to play in the first, as he clanked his final eight missives. But even a chronic Davis critic like me could see he was the Wolves' best player last night, with 6 assists that should have been 10 if any of his mates could convert an open shot, and better than average defense to boot.
But the problem is that Minnesota relies on KG or Davis to power their offense, especially in the half-court sets. That works okay with Blount and Hassell, both of whom are reliable open jump-shooters (though Hassell suffered through an abysmal 0-7 FG night and, like KG, was not his usual snuff-out self on defense). But how many times are we going to swing the ball to Mike James for a wide open trey and watch him miss it? And miss it badly: not a rattled in-and-out, but a big boing off the back iron, or a skim of the rim.
Not that Randy Foye has been making the decision any easier in recent weeks with his horrible, selfish shot-selection, his lack of judgment on proactive passes (instead of the simple, around-the-horn type), his dribbling woes, especially against traps, and his hot-and-cold defense. Every single one of those flaws can be chalked up to inexperience, of course, and should be. You can't blame Foye for being merely a solid rookie with teasing star potential rather than a precocious gem who makes the transition from college swingman to pro point without a ruffle or a hitch. I stopped hollaring so much about Foye's gaping weaknesses when it became clear that the Wolves' braintrust were feverishly grooming their next resort rather than working from a position of strength in getting the rook loads of point guard minutes.
If Kevin McHale really thinks this team can be markedly better than .500 with an outlandish underachiever as the key free agent signing and an on-the-job rook running the offense on the heels of a 33-49 season, Dwane Casey and now Randy Wittman probably have some deprogramming to do. Wittman got so desperate last night that he shelved both James and Foye for a brief stint in the fourth period and played Marko Jaric at the point. At first blush it was a good instinct, as Jaric was second only to Davis in value to the squad, and was pushing the offense in transition in a manner that James either has forgotten or never knew, and with fewer turnovers than Foye customarily musters. But on second blush, the matchup was Chris Paul, who just happens to be the dude that exposed Marko's cobweb feet and fragile ego in a memorably disastrous game for Jaric in this very same Oklahoma City building last season. It opened up the first tiny sliver on the eggshell of Jaric's self-regard, and before long Casey was trying to make an omelet with Anthony Carter, Marcus Banks, and a perpetually distraught Marko Jaric. This time, the Jaric as point guard experiment lasted 94 seconds, long enough for Paul to hit a jumper and drawing a foul on Blount while driving the lane.
2. And the Paint was as Bad as the Point
New Orleans dominated scoring in the paint, including ridiculous margins of 18-4 in the first period and 30-8 at halftime (the final tote was 44-24). Wittman obviously decided that Mark Madsen wasn't a good matchup with either Chandler or West, and their mutual absence from the game for the bulk of his 6:50 is probably the only reason MadDog was the only Wolves big who posted a plus number (specifically, +2) for the game. Still, would it have hurt to sit Blount for awhile in the second half, when he played all but 2 and a half minutes, and seen if that big pale caboose could have bothered Chandler enough so that he didn't shoot 8-9 from the field and grab 18 rebounds?
This was one of those classic games that divide the pro-Blount folks from the anti-Blount crew. Clearly, he was the Wolves' best option in the 3rd quarter, feasting on a diet of choice (mostly) Davis feeds for five straight buckets in ringing up more than half of Minnesota's 18 points in the period. But Chandler wasn't too shabby himself, getting six points, seven boards (to Blount's 2) and a pair of blocks. Now, Garnett owns some of those numbers, as he and Blount were going back and forth with Chandler and West all night. But the bottom line is that the Wolves were outscored and outrebounded in the 3rd period, and again provoked zero Hornets turnovers on D. Even Wittman acknowledged after the game that Blount and the Wolves got a little too enamored with Blount's jumper.
And since I've given Petersen credit for correctly presaging what has been a breakout season for Blount (besides his contract year a couple seasons back, anyway), it's time to ladle grief on the tail end of his analysis of the Celtics trade last night, when he said that Blount was worth the first-round pick the Wolves sacrificed in the deal. Really? Put it this way: Would you have swapped Blount for Rashad McCants at the end of last season? How about Blount for Randy Foye? And remember, you are paying Blount $8 million a year for the three seasons when you are grooming that rookie at pennies on the dollar. Consider that Blount is a -60 in the plus/minus totals, a worse mark than anyone but James and Jaric on the squad (admittedly skewed by the Phoenix blowout). Yes, Blount is the only seven-footer on the roster besides KG, and that would have to be addressed if he were not around. But even with him here, having a stolid interior banger ranks behind only a quality point guard on the list of needs for this ballclub, as Madsen's value despite submediocre talent attests. Has Mark Blount been a pleasant surprise for this team, bringing a great work ethic and an overall sense of professionalism in the locker room and on the court? Does he get along famously with KG? Yes and yes. Would I trade him back to the Celtics right now for Michael Olowokandi and that first-round pick? It's a close call only because of the Kandi Man's baggage and the fact that the pick won't be exercised until the team forks one over to the Clippers. But if the pick was for this off-season? I'd do that deal in a heartbeat.
3. Quick hits
Did anyone else notice in the second period when KG came down on the break and floated up a decent alley-oop lob to McCants barrelling down the other lane? Last year, I'm pretty sure Rashad skies for that ball and slams it home. This year, not even close. Hope it is rehab and not the new status quo.
One of many places where Flip Saunders is sorely missed on this team: The routine but rapid outlet pass. At least twice last night the Wolves got burned trying to deliver a long, half-court outlet only to serve up an easy steal. Instead of Davis quitting on defense and breaking for the hoop, how about if he locks down his man a titch longer, and receives the outlet on the wing just this side of the half-court line? (And that's not a knock on Ricky's D last night; as I mentioned, he was Minnesota's best player.)
Last but certainly not least, Wolves stat guru Paul Swanson periodically sends interesting tidbits to make us look smart. Last night's dope was particularly good, taking in the team's abysmal mark against sub-.500 opponents and upset proclivity against the quality teams, KG's dominance on the roster, and, most edifying for me, quarter-by-quarter shooting percentages.
Here you go:
Last 5 vs. sub-.500 Opponents:
Jan. 17 Atlanta L 88-105
Jan. 24 @ Portland L 98-101
Jan. 26 @ Seattle L100-102
Jan. 31 Sacramento L 98-100
Feb. 2 @ Okla.City L 83- 90
Note: Minnesota has won 10 of its last 15 against teams with .500+ records at tipoff, beginning with the Dec. 6 victory against Houston. On the season, the Wolves are 8-11 against sub-.500 teams, 14-13 vs. clubs with winning marks...
- - - -
Kevin Garnett is nine assists short of leading the Timberwolves in all five PARBS categories (points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals). Ricky Davis currently has 201 assists on the season (4.5 apg) to Garnett's 192 (4.3). He is one of only five players in NBA/ABA history to accomplish that feat over a full season, having done so in 2002-03...
- - - -
Shooting Percentage by Quarter, 2006-07:
(through Feb. 2)
Player 1stQ 2ndQ 3rdQ 4thQ
F--Hassell... 53.8% 62.0% 45.7% 58.8%
F--Garnett... 49.8% 46.9% 48.2% 45.7%
C--Blount.... 54.4% 53.6% 53.8% 49.3%
G--Davis..... 46.3% 50.0% 49.4% 39.7%
G--James..... 46.3% 38.7% 45.8% 33.8%
Foye...... 39.5% 36.6% 40.4% 46.1%
Jaric..... 37.5% 51.9% 31.3% 43.8%
Smith..... 57.7% 55.5% 62.5% 48.5%