By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Well, the column on Rasho Nesterovic and Loren Woods that I promised last week has developed into a lengthy screed that needs a little time to settle, so look for that posting later this week or first thing next Monday morning. On this day, the most significant weekend in Wolves history--in terms of fostering respect for the squad across the country and inside the NBA-- deserves attention. Here are a few quick observations:
Wally Szczerbiak Makes A Great Second Banana
Szczerbiak had a national coming-out party against the Lakers on Friday night, beating a surprised Kobe Bryant off the dribble early and shrugging off the supposedly stalwart defense of Rick Fox late in the game. Without Terrell Brandon around to feed his mid-range jumper, Szczerbiak has been more apt to put the ball on the floor and take kamikaze drives that result in short floaters, lay-ups, or foul shots. This season, Wally has made a habit of scavenging three or four hoops a game simply by running the floor hard in transition. Since Brandon went down, he has also shown a knack for penetrating in traffic; he's got strength enough to muscle it up, is athletic enough to hang for a beat and let the defender clear, and is quicker than he looks.
That said, it's a good thing Sczerbiak isn't the main man on this team. You don't want your best player to be a mediocre defender; it's a vibe that subconsciously pollutes the resolve of the entire team, which is one reason why Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal (great defenders, all) have rings and Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and Patrick Ewing (a mediocre defensive trio) don't. Wally makes too many mental mistakes, especially for the son of a former pro, and is too much of a forward/guard "tweener" to be more than average on defense. Like everyone else on the team, though he would be ashamed not to dedicate himself to the task when Garnett is on the court. And, as we saw on Friday and have heard over and over since, he knows how to put the ball in the hole.
As much as leaping ability, lightning speed, or an operatic contralto, basketball unselfishness is a god-given talent, and KG's got it. He doesn't have to think to get the ball to the open man, treat the Dean Garretts and Reggie Jordans of the world with respect, or cover for a teammate on defense. But when it's all on KG, his mind starts to retard his instincts, he floods his competitive engine, then loses the magical grease that keeps him and his teammates in sync.
Until Wally emerged in the last three weeks, Garnett hasn't had a really great second banana to play with since Stephon Marbury left town. (And Marbury's problem is that he doesn't want to be a second banana.) Brandon doesn't have the right moxie and Tom Gugliotta didn't have the defining talent to make an identity. Last year in particular it seemed to all be on KG, and you could see how much he thought "shoot or pass" when he had the ball. Now he knows that, now and again, Wally is going to grab the go-to-guy mantle (the same way Stephon needed to), and that lets KG spread the grease and take a mental breather at the same time.
Could anybody have more fun than KG had this weekend? Against the Lakers, the guy who lists his height at six-foot-eleven (because he doesn't want to be stereotyped as a low post resident) gets called on to catalyze the offense from the high post because Shaq's down low and Chauncey Billups is on the fritz. The passing lanes materialize, Wally's in the zone, and KG's own three-pointers are going down easy; he gets 16 straight points for the Wolves in the second quarter without hogging the ball. And without three of their top eight players, his team goes on to beat the world champs, Kobe shakes his head, and Shaq grouses in the locker room. Coming up for Air the next night against the Wizards, Garnett inspires Jordan to play the way he used to see him on TV, and still holds his own as the Wolves register another high-profile victory. Salut!
The Wolves Are Deeper Than The Sum Of Their Parts
Gary Trent goes down Friday night, you know he isn't coming back. Sam Mitchell saunters on to the court and disrupts the Laker offense like a novice in a roller rink, always in the way. For maybe the first time in his pro career, Rasho's totally overmatched and doesn't get intimidated.
Watching Peeler square himself for long-range bombs is a thing of beauty--whether the ball goes in or not, everyone's glad he took the shot. Felipe Lopez is savoring his minutes like they're droplets of single malt scotch. Against Washington, Billups stays hot for most of the game. Brandon, Smith, Trent, gone, gone, gone. Not yet missed.
Enjoy The ride
Smith is 26 years old. KG and Rasho are 25. Wally is 24. The Wolves are 27-9. At this point, even a total flame-out could be a valuable learning experience, and fascinating to watch. We've got the league MVP (thus far); a guy who can rain j's like Allen Houston and blow by you if you crowd him; some seasoned muscle for the playoffs (if Gary Trent can get healthy); and a coach who is pushing buttons and plugging holes so adroitly you'd think all the sprains and bruises were some sort of master plan. Give in to it until it goes away.