Canine Distemper

Forget About the Wolves Bandwagon. Now Might Be the Time to Climb Aboard the Tow Truck.

There’s really not much left to say, is there? The Wolves made me look smart by reentering the tank right as last week’s cover story on their first-half dysfunction hit the news racks. Recently, coach Flip Saunders has dispensed with opening comments in his post-game press conferences. Instead, he has been strolling to the mic and saying, “Questions?”--a means of truncating this by-now torturous ritual. In the locker room, Cassell and Sprewell bug out early, a no-show metaphor for their on-court performance. Meanwhile, more noble souls such as Szczerbiak, Hudson, and, always belatedly, KG, stare at the floor at the epicenter of the media cluster and mutter the same old thing about working hard, staying together, and not giving up.

Everybody’s tired of his own bullshit.

Home-court advantage for the playoffs is almost officially a pipedream. To bag a top-four seeding, the Wolves would have to leapfrog five teams over their next 34 games. If the current number four, Sacramento, plays .500 ball (18-17) the rest of the way, Minnesota would tie them by compiling a record of 26-8, while hoping one of the four teams between them and Sac doesn’t also get hot. Fat chance.

The next best hope is to stage a second-half rally and make the postseason as a lower seed, and then continue the momentum by springing an upset in the first round. It’s possible, but hardly probably. And it would only lead into a second-round matchup where, it seems inevitable, the Wolves would encounter either a Phoenix ballclub that has made Minnesota look aged and inept their past two meetings, or a San Antonio squad that has had more talent, more cohesion, more grit, and a better coach than the Wolves since the first night of the season.

Thus, the biggest thing the Wolves have to play for between now and the February 24 trading deadline is a justification for not blowing up the 12-man roster. And the most compelling reason to watch them is for the macabre voyeurism of it all--the fascination of seeing something self-destruct right before our eyes. Forget about the bandwagon. Right now people are climbing on the tow truck.

After the Wolves dropped their fifth game in a row Sunday against Boston, Saunders said, “There is a fine line between winning and losing, [involving] about five or six possessions a game. If you make the right play on three or four of them, you are going to win. If you make one, you are going to lose.”

Until this year, Saunders’s clubs seized upon those crucial possessions to triumph in close contests. On both Friday and Sunday, they fumbled away winnable games with mental and physical miscues during those make-or-break situations.

In random fashion, here are a few of the club’s crunch-time follies during those home losses. Sam Cassell jacked up a momentum-halting three-pointer (he’s bricking three out of four from behind arc this season) with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, then at the other end. Then Cassell fouled Boston’s Paul Pierce (who is automatic from the free throw line) with the shot clock winding down and Trenton Hassell already blanketing Pierce on the sideline. Latrell Sprewell let Houston’s Bobby Sura beat him on a back-door cut, resulting in an easy put-back by Juwan Howard that clinched the Rockets’ overtime win. Kevin Garnett passed up an easy jumper to provide an even more makeable shot for Szczerbiak, who clanked it off the front iron. Hassell missed two free throws. After Michael Olowokandi played his best three quarters in nearly two years, Saunders left him on the bench for all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter.

Next week, as the trading deadline approaches, I’ll get back to analyzing the future fate of the lame ducks, malcontents, and simmering powderkegs on the Wolves’ roster. But just now I don’t have the stomach for it.

 
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