Merry Christmas, Mr. Blair

LAST SATURDAY AFTERNOON, beleaguered Minnesota Timberwolves coach Bill Blair sat courtside at the Target Center and said, "This is a very, very tough job. Last year, I felt it was the worst job I had ever seen. This year it's getting a little better." Less than 48 hours later Blair was fired, culminating a lost weekend in which the coach essentially signed his own death warrant with inept performances in embarrassing home defeats against two teams with inferior talent.

It began on Friday night against Cleveland, when Blair implemented a new defensive scheme that had the Wolves switching off on the men they were guarding instead of trying to push their way through the other team's picks and screens. The strategy obviously confused the Wolves more than their opponents. As Minnesota point guard Terry Porter said, "It's hard for a team unaccustomed to switching to try it all of a sudden. You get guys running around and yelling." Blair never abandoned the ill-fated defense. "Cleveland surgically removed our liver, our spleen, whatever they wanted to do out there," said Wolves vice president Kevin McHale, the man who fired Blair. "I said to myself we have no chance of winning this game." Afterwards, a scowling McHale could be seen walking down the hallway outside the Wolves' locker room, muttering obscenities under his breath.

Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, the Wolves fell behind early against a Philadelphia team that had lost 17 of 20 games this year. Blair responded adroitly, benching his starters and bringing in hungry rookies Kevin Garnett, Mark Davis, and Jerome Allen to play tenacious, full-court pressure defense. In less than a quarter of action, the young trio helped close the gap, prompting a raucous ovation from the crowd when they returned to the bench. But in the second half, Blair stuck with his veterans, playing Garnett a measly three minutes and ignoring Davis, who could have used the reinforcement. Instead, the veterans suffered some costly defensive lapses in the fourth quarter, particularly by Porter, the 32-year-old veteran who has played far more minutes this year than anyone expected. After Philly had eked out a two-point victory, McHale met with his trusted advisers and former teammates Flip Saunders and Jerry Sichting, and conferred with Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who then informed Blair that he was out of work.

BEFORE TURNING TO Saunders, who is now the coach as well as the general manager of the Wolves, it's appropriate to take a moment to appreciate Blair, who has clearly been the best coach in the wretched six-year history of the franchise. Even with his recent gaffes, Blair capably blended the nuts and bolts of the game's technical planning with the blood, sweat, and beers of player relations. Neither a dictator nor "one of the guys," Blair's rapport with his players was flexible enough that he could chew somebody out for a lapse during practice and then razz him about the clothes he wears leaving the locker room.

On Saturday, Blair reiterated a point that his experience around successful programs in the player-oriented NBA had taught him: "It is totally necessary to have your top two or three players be on the same page as you are so they can set an example for the rest of the team." But due to the idiocy of former general manager Jack McCloskey and the team's dysfunctional culture, that's the opposite of what Blair inherited. Instead, attitude-laden rookies like Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider joined editions of the Wolves that were bereft of any reputable veteran leaders and were coached by befuddled amateurs like Jimmie Rodgers and Sidney Lowe.

Even with the addition of Tom Gugliotta, Sam Mitchell, and Terry Porter, the Wolves don't have anyone on their roster who is generally acknowledged as a team leader around the NBA. Yet Blair had coaxed career-best seasons out of both Laettner and Rider so far this year. As a coach who preferred to stress defense and anchor it around a big, shot-blocking center, he had adjusted his own philosophy to accommodate Laettner's move to the center position. Lacking a quality point guard and an intimidating force down near the basket, Blair still had the team playing harder and more successfully than at any time since the end of the 1990-91 season.

But it wasn't enough to suit McHale. On Monday, he correctly stressed that there is a crucial difference between effort and efficiency, between playing hard and playing well. While praising Blair for motivating the players, he implicitly criticized the coach for not channeling that motivation more effectively. It's a legitimate point insofar as the Wolves self-destructed much more often than they gave up under Blair. The problem is that McHale overestimates the amount of talent Blair had to work with. On Monday, McHale said that at the beginning of the season, he figured the Wolves would win at least 35 games, a 67 percent increase over last season's 21-win total. That's a tall order considering the caliber of the half-dozen players McHale added to this year's roster: two veterans (Porter and Sam Mitchell), neither of whom was among the seven best players on his previous team; a supremely gifted teenager who is making the jump from high school to the pros; two second-round draft picks, and a player from the minor-league CBA.

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