At a Loss

The Wolves are caught between styles and running out of time

After the Kings had toppled the Wolves in the opening game of their series Tuesday night, I asked coach Flip Saunders why Minnesota's assist-to-turnover rate had declined so precipitously over the last month. "We've tried to do some things, maybe be more aggressive to get to the foul line," he replied. "We're putting ourselves in situations where we're turning the ball over trying to be more aggressive."

For years, Saunders has been chided for emphasizing crisp perimeter passes and open jumpers at the expense of drives to the hoop that produce fouls and free throws. In March, knowing that trips to the foul line and tough, aggressive play at both ends of the court are the key to playoff success, Saunders began to move the team away from its jump-shooting identity. The results have been mixed. On balance, and certainly on Tuesday night, the Wolves seem to have sacrificed more than they've gained through this different approach, one they obviously haven't fully embraced.

Let's get specific. It's well documented that Kevin Garnett had a bad game on Tuesday. Kings coach Rick Adelman drew up a solid game plan that called for KG to be trapped quickly and relentlessly down in the low post by a variety of different help defenders. KG acknowledged being surprised by the traps, and not responding appropriately. Of more concern than his poor shooting performance (6-21), was the fact that KG turned the ball over six times and only went to the foul line for four shots. In nine minutes of the third quarter he was particularly inept, with a pair of missed shots, two rebounds, an assist, and zero free throws versus four turnovers.

Of the Kings' big men, Brad Miller and Darius Songaila are best equipped to defend KG in the low block. Miller played just five minutes in that third quarter and Songaila never left the bench the entire game. If Garnett can't draw fouls on Vlade Divac and Chris Webber going strong to the hoop, the Wolves are in serious trouble.

Garnett, however, was not the biggest goat on Tuesday. Latrell Sprewell had one of those nights when his intensity was unplugged and his confidence was shot. He sank just two of fourteen shots and missed all six attempts in the second half. By the fourth quarter, the Kings sensed that he was loathe to shoot and didn't bother to check him aggressively out on the perimeter. But the most damning stat is that Spree didn't get to the foul line once. The player renowned as the Wolves' most capable slasher, knowing that his jumper was off, rarely ventured toward the hoop, and never initiated contact off the drive in the second half. If that doesn't change, the Wolves will lose this series.

Sam Cassell's 40 points have seemingly made him immune from criticism in the media, but the fact is, Cassell was outplayed by Mike Bibby on Tuesday. Contrary to expectations, Adelman didn't deploy his shutdown perimeter defender, Doug Christie, on Cassell during most of Game One. On the contrary, the constant trapping of KG in the low post often opened up space for Cassell to operate. Bibby's 33 points were seven less than Cassell's total, but he killed the Wolves at crucial times throughout the game. His two steals from Cassell in the game's first 91 seconds and his 14 points in the first quarter set the tone for the Wolves to play catch-up for most of the game.

And in the three minutes that decided the game in the fourth quarter, Bibby was huge. The score was knotted at 83 with 5:23 to play; at 2:18 to go, the Kings were up seven, 93-86. During this 10-3 run, Bibby drove for a layup, tipped in a shot, sank a pair of free throws after being fouled by Mark Madsen, and fed Chris Webber for a 17-foot jumper. That put the Wolves in desperation mode. And while Cassell's four treys in the final two minutes of the game were impressive, they weren't clutch in the sense that missing or making them affected the outcome of the game.

After the Denver series, it is an open secret that Cassell doesn't box out his man on defense. Bibby snuck in for three offensive rebounds--two in the fourth quarter--and had seven boards overall, four more than Cassell. He also had more assists, steals, and blocks, and committed fewer turnovers than Sammy. He was the MVP on Tuesday and right now is the odds-on favorite to be the MVP of this series.

Since we're in blame mode in this autopsy, I guess it's time to mention Michael Olowokandi. As I mentioned in a previous Hang Time, the Kings' rapid ball movement and savvy big men make this team a bad matchup for Kandi. This was starkly borne out the first time Saunders held his breath and inserted his enigmatic backup center into the game near the end of the first quarter, with the Wolves down three. It took Kandi less than a second to commit his first foul, and less than 70 seconds to register his second turnover. When Saunders finally sat him down after three minutes, the Kings' margin had swollen to 11. Kandi did play better during a nine-minute stint in the second half (when the Wolves went plus-six on the Kings), but the erratic, mostly toxic, impact he's exerted on playoff games thus far will make it difficult for Saunders to deploy him much in Saturday's must-win contest. Already Flip has dropped hints that Gary Trent may be removing the splinters from his rear and getting some playing time. Any minutes for Trent will likely be at Kandi's expense.

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