Best of Three

The Wolves turned over game four. Can Sacramento steal this series with only seven men?

At the most basic level, the Timberwolves lost Wednesday night's game to Sacramento because the Kings needed, and subsequently wanted, to win more than Minnesota. It's easy to say that the Wolves should have grasped the importance of the game--their winning would have put Sacramento in a probably insurmountable 3-1 hole--and matched the Kings' intensity by trying harder. But when the overall talent base of two clubs is so evenly apportioned, it's not surprising that the one in genuinely desperate straits is able to dig a little deeper to fuel its aggressiveness and enforce its will. That the Kings did what they had to do, on a night when the Wolves didn't really play that badly, adds luster to an already dramatic series.

At the second-most basic level, the Wolves were defeated because they turned the ball over 24 times, nearly twice as often as they did on average during the regular season. While the Kings' occasionally rigorous defense was a factor in this, the Wolves were often their own worst enemy, especially in the first half. Minnesota opened up the game with the sort of crisp passing that was once their trademark. But their inability to hit open jumpers led them to try to create more on their own, producing more turnovers than baskets and free throws.

Late in the first quarter, stubborn Flip Saunders again went to Michael Olowokandi and then Darrick Martin off the bench, with by-now predictable results. Kandi produced a turnover trifecta--a bad pass, a traveling call, and a double dribble--in the space of 74 seconds. Martin turned the ball over twice and committed two fouls during his mercifully brief stint. Between them, the dastardly duo committed five turnovers in a combined six minutes of play, sabotaging any chance the Wolves had of cutting into Sac's lead.

Saunders had better luck with Gary Trent, who vindicated the coach's contention that another offensive option in the paint would spur the Wolves. Trent's determination to score around the basket kept Minnesota from being blown out in the second quarter and stood in stark contrast to his teammates' disinclination to muscle the ball up inside.

But when the Wolves made their move in the third quarter, roaring back to tie the game at 53 late in the third quarter, it was the outside shooting of KG and Cassell plus the stalwart defense of the starters that brought them back. And on the two occasions when Saunders opted to bring Trent instead of Mark Madsen off the bench, he was much less effective. The situation cried for Madsen with 6:49 to play and the Wolves down five, 68-63. It's exactly the sort of situation where Madsen's energetic X factor might have provided a crucial boost. Instead, Trent missed all three of his shots and committed two fouls while being overmatched against Kings forwards Brad Miller and Chris Webber underneath. When he went to the sidelines with 2:42 to go, Sacramento's lead had grown to 77-68. This time there would be no comeback.

The importance of tonight's pivotal fifth game is obvious. It is a time to eschew gambles and to throw out what hasn't worked thus far in the series. That means Kandi and Martin--who at -20 and -18, respectively, have by far the worst plus/minus totals on the team in this series--shouldn't leave the bench. And it means that Wally Szczerbiak should wait at least another game before trying to return from the back injury he suffered in the Denver series.

I understand that Sacramento has left Trenton Hassell essentially unguarded in favor of pressuring KG and to a lesser extent Cassell, and that Szczerbiak's presence might be an effective counter to that strategy. But Hassell has hit 52 percent of his field goals over the past four games and is a far better defender on Peja Stojakovic than Wally could ever hope to be. Recent history has shown that it took a while for Szczerbiak to get his shooting rhythm back after his last injury, plus he has a disturbing tendency to turn the ball over while trying to do too much in the postseason. That's the last thing the Wolves need right now.

Besides, what Saunders and the Wolves need to remember is that tenacious, tight-knit team defense has become the club's dominant identity this season. Playing physical D against the Kings' seven-man rotation offers the best chance of capturing this game. On that score, it was hopeful to see Cassell enjoy his best defensive game of the series Wednesday, even if he was mostly matched up against an obviously hobbling Doug Christie. Leave Spree on Bibby and Hassell on Peja as much as possible. Ride Ervin Johnson--at +11 the team leader in plus/minus during this series--as long as possible.

If Saunders feels the need to get Trent in for some points in the paint, one can only hope he'll deploy a quick hook if Trent is being abused at the other end by Miller and company. And hopefully, he'll remember that Madsen remains an option. With home-court advantage in what is now a best-of-three matchup, this remains the Wolves' series to lose. Sacramento may just prove gritty and talented enough to take it from them by deploying only seven players. But the taste won't be quite so bitter if it's at the expense of the core players that led the Wolves farther into the postseason than ever before.

 
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