Standing On The Edge Of Getting It On

THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES are in a precariously hopeful position right now, as befits an 11-27 team fresh off a winning streak. Anyone who watched the Wolves rattle off three home victories and take New Jersey into overtime on the road last week can see that they are playing with a higher degree of panache and partnership, embracing the more clearly defined individual roles limned out by new coach Flip Saunders. Set against a franchise history of unremitting ineptitude, however, any show of grace and gumption that extends beyond a game or two feels suspiciously fragile. On the other hand, the improvement could last a little longer this time.

Saunders is the obvious place to begin. When he said after a long six-game road trip that the Wolves were a better team than when they'd left, it sounded like bullshit: Their only win, after all, was against a crumbling Phoenix club that has since fired its coach. Yet the Wolves are better, and Saunders has made a difference in subtle, significant ways.

Although much has been made of his "new system," Saunders's chalkboard diagrams are probably the least of his contributions. The most salient difference is that when Saunders sees a player matchup he can exploit, he hammers at it until the opponent adjusts, then hammers at the opportunities the adjustment opens. This tactically aggressive style requires an acute awareness of each player's strengths and weaknesses--an aptitude that's also served Saunders well in developing substitution patterns. While he hasn't tampered much with the total minutes each of the Wolves plays, he's made some key adjustments in when those minutes happen. The most noteworthy example is the case of Kevin Garnett, who has averaged about 19 minutes per game throughout the season, but plays a lot more at vital times--like the fourth quarter of close games--under Saunders than under Blair. Despite the added responsibility, his statistics have remained constant, even gaining noticeably in his shot accuracy. Asked why, Garnett says simply, "I don't feel like I'll be pulled out of the game if I miss two shots in a row."

That contagious sense of foreboding was Blair's primary liability. A hot-wired personality under the best of circumstances, he knew he was coaching from Death Row this season; when the team inevitably failed to meet McHale's expectations, he would take the fall. When the Wolves stumbled early, Blair's courtside manner--the facial tics, whiplash body contortions, and salty language--became a pretty fair approximation of Tourette's Syndrome. Following his lead, the team strained to play harder and only exacerbated its lack of assurance. After a month on the job, Saunders's most noteworthy accomplishment has been to calm them down enough to concentrate.

Saunders has been particularly adept in his relationship with J.R. Rider. It's easy to forget that before the missed practices, the confrontations with Blair, and the Mall of America incident, Rider was a player who generally sought to pass on offense and overcome his inexperience on defense. The more he was called a punk, the more he acted like one: hoarding the ball, refusing to fight through picks. And despite the efforts of both men, his relationship with Blair never really recovered. In Saunders's first home game, by contrast, Rider gave him an aggravated look when he was benched after picking up two quick fouls. Saunders didn't take it as bait. Afterwards he told the media, "Believe it or not, J. is very sensitive. I told him I needed him too much in the second half to waste him in the first half and we were fine."

When Rider was late to a practice, Saunders said Doug West would start that night's game in his place--not for disciplinary reasons, he stressed, but because Rider's absence forced him to miss some relevant scouting and strategic information; Rider was in the game by the end of the first quarter. When Rider played lackluster defense against Indiana on the last game of the long road trip, Saunders yanked him, then made a point of announcing to the team that everybody would be subjected to the same treatment. Rather than deliver a message through direct confrontation, Saunders was aiming post-it notes at the edges of Rider's pride and psyche--all the while conveying his sense that Rider could be one of the game's elite players.

Rider's mother arrived in town from California for the Wolves' homestand last week. In the first game, against Sacramento, Rider would be guarding his former mentor, the great scoring guard Mitch Richmond. Playing arguably his finest all-around game as a Timber-wolf, Rider thoroughly outperformed Richmond at both ends of the floor, then announced he was dedicating himself to more aggressive defense for the rest of the season. So far, he has lived up to his word. Meanwhile, Saunders has been calling more plays for Rider to get the ball near the basket, where Rider likes to operate, and where Saunders is concerned about his being double-teamed. The post-it message is that Rider has earned those plays down low. At the end of the San Antonio game, the team's third straight win, Saunders approached Rider with both palms raised over his head, and the two slapped high tens. Then Rider went over and hugged his mom. Talking to him in the locker room, it's clear that he's never been happier; he's certainly never played more consistently.

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