A Team Worse Than Death
I was just a little disappointed to see that, due to the fact that his body is disintegrating, Shaquille O’Neal wouldn’t be in the active roster for the Heat on Tuesday. This feeling came as a surprise to me since I’ve deeply hated the guy ever since he put on that next 60 pounds of muscle, joined the Lakers and stopped running or dribbling. I realize that he was (and is) a freakish athletic phenomenon—and also that he weirdly seems to have a good sense of humor—but his brutalist playing style was as awesome and terrifying and inevitable as an East Berlin housing project. The kind of thing that was designed solely to crush spirits. He was effective (horribly, horribly effective), but his play was joyless and oppressive (also boring) and, as far as I’m concerned, it just wasn’t basketball (and if you disagree with me, you are a Laker fan). Nonetheless, I guess I was looking forward to seeing the aging Diesel—probably a combination of perverse fascination and a very guilty pleasure in his accelerating decline.
Timberwolf Bar Mitzvah
In any case, the Heat have more to worry about than the aesthetic/political shortcomings of Shaq’s game, as their 101-91 loss to the Timberwolves revealed. Like, for instance, the fact that his and Alonzo Mourning’s absence meant that Mark Blount, Minnesota’s favorite dead-eyed, non-rebounding former seven footer, found himself in the starting lineup. (If you didn’t think Blount was dishearteningly unaggressive while he was a Timberwolf, consider the fact that he allowed himself, at certain points in the game, to be guarded by the 6'7" Ryan Gomes without once attempting to score inside.) These and other injuries forced both coaches into unusually small starting fives—the Wolves started Ryan Gomes, Bassie Telfair, Rashad McCants, Al Jefferson and Marko Jaric, all but one of whom is under 6’8”—and play early on was a feast of cutting, switching, screening and generally awesome running around. It was like college basketball except all the players were better. (I’m not really sure why, but when LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” came over the PA during one timeout, my brain automatically linked the song and my glee at the small lineups. Maybe they engender the same sort of heady optimism, that feeling of something potentially transcendent on the horizon. Or maybe it means that I am a huge dork.) This style suited the Wolves, especially early on, as they frustrated the Heat with their smooth, energetic offense and swarming D. They caused turnovers (11 by the Heat in the first half vs. just four for the Wolves) and got easy baskets.
Especially heartening was the play of McCants who finished with 27 points on 12 of 24 shooting. McCants has been terrific over the past three games, averaging 27.3 points while shooting an impressive 57%. Although we’re usually told that patience is the cardinal virtue in offensive basketball, McCants’s has improved recently by becoming more aggressive in certain situations. It’s quite true that players (especially guards) need to be judicious about when to force the action and when to allow action to come to them, but when opportunities arise they must act quickly and efficiently. As his many impressive highlights can attest, McCants is tremendously talented but he often seems to have difficulty recognizing these opportunities. Very often he will hold the ball, staring at his opponent, running valuable time off of the shot clock, and allowing weakside defenders to position themselves. This formula causes the offense to bog down as players stop moving, waiting for McCants to do something; the result is usually a forced shot in traffic or a desperate pass to a flat-footed teammate with time running down. Against the Heat, McCants was, for the most part, much more decisive. He played within the flow of the offense and attacked the defense with a mix of mid-range jumpers and well-chosen threes.
Miami Loss Machine
But all of the Wolves impressive accomplishments last night should not obscure the fact that the Heat are a very, very bad team. They have a slightly better record than the Wolves and one of the most beautiful players in the world in Dwyane Wade, but they are probably the most depressing team in the league. Aside from Wade and the hard working Udonis Haslem, they are a queasy mixture of the young and mediocre (Earl Barron, Luke Jackson, Chris Quinn) and the aging and/or washed up (Shaq, Jason Williams; Ricky Davis, whom I dearly love despite everything, is way too young to be either aging or washed up, but, sweet lord, did he ever look lost and uninterested last night). As the game wound down and the Heat came within striking distance after trailing by 10-15 for most of the game, they seemed to just not have the heart to come back in earnest. Wade usually carries a look of bemused calm but today it was more of a grimace; he was unable to force his battered body to the basket and will his team to victory as he did against the Wolves two weeks ago.
For their part, the Wolves showed the same lack of poise in the last five minutes or so that has seen them blow so many leads this season. Coach Randy Wittman criticized his team for passing on open shots late in the game and that was certainly a problem, but to me it pointed to a larger issue. Sebastian Telfair and McCants can both be terrific within the flow of offense and in transition, but both players show their weaknesses in true half-court settings, which all teams, regardless of style, encounter at the end of close games—situations in which guards must be able to penetrate and create opportunities even when their opponent expects them to do just that. Here, Telfair, despite his devastating quickness, revealed himself to be just a so-so one-on-one player thanks to his small size and inconsistent outside shooting; and McCants chose this very moment to revert to his paradoxical bad habit of tentative ball-hogging. Rather than close the game with authority, the Wolves simply allowed the Heat’s badness to manifest itself. This is why I have hope that Randy Foye’s return, whenever it actually happens, can translate directly into wins for the Wolves. Foye is (or has shown the potential to be) just the kind of player who is skilled, shrewd and confident enough to make plays with the game on the line. As the saying goes.