Wally Szczerbiak, Defensive Specialist

In the press conference after yesterday's shellacking by the Lakers, I asked Wolves' coach Flip Saunders if it was reasonable to give Wally Szczerbiak primary responsibility for guarding Kobe Bryant and expect him to be a focal point of Minnesota's offense. "Kobe's doing the same thing on the other side," Saunders replied.

That's not a good answer. Wally guarding Kobe expends a hell of a lot more energy than Kobe guarding Wally, and not just because Kobe moves better without the ball. The Lakers' offense is built around Kobe handling the ball much of the time. Nobody minds too much if Kobe misses twenty shots in a game. And the Lakers' triangle offense is freewheeling enough for Kobe to improvise. Needless to say, it's more fun--and less mentally and physically taxing--trying to put the ball in the hoop than it is trying to prevent your opponent from doing so. That's why players never feel compelled to say they "take pride in their offense."

Wally can't create his own shot in the half-court offense. But oh can he put the ball in the hoop, either in transition or when set plays get him open looks. After three years in the league, he has converted more than half of his field goal attempts. This season, he ranked fifth in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage. Believe it or not, Wally (who sank 5 of 9 attempts) was a more accurate shooter yesterday than Kobe (who was 16-30). It's just that Kobe more than triple the amount of shots.


Part of the reason Wally wasn't more involved in the Wolves' offense is that he was spending focus and gusto trying to guard Kobe. The other part was the Wolves' weren't running enough set plays to free up his jumper. You can take this to the bank: Whenever Wally's D is a bigger factor than his J, the Wolves are going to lose.

So what's the answer? Against Kobe and Shaq, there aren't any good ones defensively. I'd put Marc Jackson in at power forward to help Rasho Nesterovic double Shaq (the Wolves' aren't guarding Mark Madsen anyway) and throw Kevin Garnett on Kobe for at least some stretches of the game. Yes, KG's perimeter defense isn't quite what it used to be, but it's the best the Wolves have, and slowing Kobe down is a priority. Or, if you don't want to expend KG that much either, go to the smaller lineup with KG and Wally in the front line and put Anthony Peeler--smaller but more defensively tenacious than Wally-- on Kobe. That leaves Wally on Rick Fox, a veritable holiday after guarding Kobe.

But as I said before the series, Shaq and Kobe are virtually unstoppable, and while the Wolves need to improve their D over Game One, their best shot at snatching a victory or two is by outscoring L.A. with a high-octane offense that gambles more often on three-pointers. It's easy to note the Wolves' 50 percent field goal accuracy yesterday and assume that the offense played well. But the Lakers were never seriously threatened enough to really rachet up their defensive rotations, and if you want to overcome Shaq and Kobe, you've got to score points in bunches. The Wolves' had a higher three-point shooting percentage than the Lakers this season, yet in Game One, L.A. went 10-for-19 from beyond the arc, while Minnesota was just 1-for-5. That's a 27-point advantage from treyville, more than the 19-point margin of victory.

True, the Wolves don't have a dominating big man near the basket to lure away defenders and generate easy three-point attempts, but Saunders isn't even trying to get Wally, Peeler, and Troy Hudson off from long range. All of them are capable of getting hot; if it happens to two of them at the same time, the Wolves actually have a chance of winning. Now is not the time for Saunders to keep his powder dry--or to stick with a highly successful regular season philosophy that hasn't--and won't--get him anywhere in the playoffs against a better team.

For Britt Robson's NBA Playoff Predictions, plus other insights on sports, music, and politics, go to his weblog, Ham on Rhino, in the Babelogue section of citypages.com.

 
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