A Perfect Tank Job and Random Happenings
By Stephen Litel
Before my actual post, let me first apologize for my absence the past few games. I have been struggling with a case of exhaustion lately between covering the Wolves, covering the Lynx draft, working on my Kevin Garnett book, along with the fact that I am a husband and father of two children who are wild ones. I am feeling rested now and ready to go for the home stretch of the 2006-07 Wolves season and am anxiously waiting the beginning of the Lynx season.
As someone who now believes that it is in the best interest of this team to lose each game in order to secure their draft pick, I found myself in a strange situation prior to the Wolves/Hornets game last night. Like many fans, I struggle to root for my beloved Timberwolves to lose, knowing in the back of my mind that losing is precisely what they need to do for the remainder of the season.
So, when I entered the locker room before the game and saw how a majority of the players were motivated to achieve victory on this night, it was tough to not want the win. Mark Blount, Mike James, Craig Smith, Justin Reed, Marko Jaric, and Bracey Wright were discussing the playoff race when Wright asked me how far out they were. When I answered, Blount then asked if they were mathematically out of the race and when I informed them that they were not, although they are incredibly close to it, Mike James chipped in with "Man, we gotta get this one."
As the starting lineup was announced, followed by the video montage with Marilyn Manson's version of "Beautiful People" plays, (which I think was incredibly put together), it was hard for me to hope Minnesota loses the contest. The crowd was of relatively decent size, even as another disappointing season winds down, the players were pumped up more so then I have seen for a majority of the season and Spike Lee was in attendance, so it would be nice to see the home team win.
Through all of the heat that he has received since replacing Dwane Casey, head coach Randy Wittman coached a brilliant game against New Orleans. You may be asking yourself something to the effect of "Has Stephen lost his mind?" right now, but it really took some amazing coaching to purposely tank this game, all the while making it seem as if you are trying to win.
It is astonishingly clear that the best lineup that Minnesota can put on the floor at this time consists of "KG and the Kids," as some have called them. The lineup of Foye, McCants, Hassell, Smith, and Garnett has shown consistently that they enjoy playing together, have the ability to move the ball in incredible fashion, gives this team the best chance at acquiring a win... and showing a small glimpse of hope for the future all at the same time.
Continuing to leave the starting lineup as the status quo of James, Davis, Jaric, Garnett, and Blount, mostly to placate the egos of the veterans, Wittman shows his brilliance in losing games. Instead of flat out admitting to tanking, one of the things he can point to is the starting lineup, saying that by continuing to play the veterans he is giving the team their best chance. Rookies make mistakes, along with second year players coming off knee surgeries, that cost games most of the time, yet anyone who thinks they know basketball can see that is not the case on this dysfunctional team. After the starters combined for a total of 21 points in the first quarter, led by Mike James 13 points, KG and the kids hammered New Orleans in the second quarter, putting up 36 points with 12 points each from McCants and Foye, along with Hassell's 10.
Coming out of the half, the starters played a majority of the third quarter. During that time, Minnesota's six point halftime lead was gone within two minutes and by the end of the quarter the Wolves had given up 29 points, trailing by five. Mark Madsen replaces Garnett with 1:22 left in the third while McCants enters the game for the first time in the second half at that same time. Randy Foye re-enters the game with 47.7 seconds left in the third, turning the ball over twice before the end of the quarter, which gives Wittman yet another thing to point to as proof that they are not tanking...
Instead of calling out his veterans for their overall bad play, he can point to the mistakes of the young players as reasons for the eventual loss.
Rashad McCants and Kevin Garnett play great basketball together, but by putting McCants out there without KG, Wittman can show that McCants has a lot of areas in which he needs to improve. Craig Smith continues to get questionable fouls against him, but that comes with the territory of being a second round pick who likes to fight down low and take charges. Foye helped Wittman's conscience by turning the ball over when he did, so he can sleep at night by placing the blame on the few players who actually care about winning anymore.
Playing Foye, McCants, Hassell, and Smith for nearly half of the fourth quarter with Mark Madsen was a great move for Wittman. Now he can say that he gave his young players a valuable learning experience as this team continues to build on its "Blueprint for the Future," but he had to be careful to not substitute Garnett back into the game too early. He had to make sure that the lead was large enough that "the lineup," no matter how well they played, would not be able to overcome. This is really where Wittman showed his brilliance, but also was given a lucky break.
Reentering the game at the 6:22 mark, Kevin Garnett was still in single figures scoring. If Garnett did not extend his double figure scoring streak, Wittman would have been in hot water with the fans in attendance, screwing up the one nice thing that Garnett has going for him. Therefore, Wittman was allowed the opportunity to use timeouts in the fourth quarter to draw up plays for Garnett to continue the streak. The brilliance was that Wittman got exactly what he wanted, along with Kevin McHale and Glen Taylor... Garnett's streak continues and Minnesota loses by a point due to a lack of timeouts remaining after New Orleans takes the lead.
* * * * * *
When I re-entered the Wolves locker room after the game, I found it to be empty except for Bracey Wright. As he was changing clothes to leave, he cracked a joke that nobody ever wants to talk to him. So, somewhat out of sympathy and somewhat out of a genuine curiosity, I asked Wright if his butt hurt from sitting on the bench all night.
He laughed and said, "No, my butt's fine, but my legs are killing me," referring to his legs falling asleep on the bench.
I then asked him if he was going to be in Minnesota next season. His reply?
"I'm a free agent this summer and things can change quickly." He later added "Most Improved Player right here next season," pointing to himself, surely indicating that he will be winding down his run as a Wolves cheerleader in ten days when the season is officially over.
By Stephen Litel