The Last Gasp

Arrrr, mateys: can't we all just get along?

In the final minutes of what should have been a very satisfying Wolves win over Houston Sunday night, Wally Szczerbiak was complaining about not getting the ball, assistant coach Sidney Lowe was telling point guard Sam Cassell to pass the ball to Szczerbiak, and Cassell was going batshit because he was being accused of freezing out Szczerbiak when his apparent motivation for holding on to the rock was to take time off the clock.

Up by 20 when the final period began, the Wolves were outscored 24-12 in the fourth quarter, with Szczerbiak sinking the only two shots he attempted and the rest of the team going two for 13. Cassell turned the ball over three times in a five-minute span, all on horrible passes, at least one of which was intended for Wally.

Meanwhile, Kevin McHale, whose chronic ankle injury gives him the sideline demeanor of a peg-legged pirate, was reduced to trying to placate his bickering minions long enough to win the damn game. Remember all those feel-good stories the week after McHale took over, about how much unexpected pleasure he was getting from coaching, tousling his players' hair and promoting his brand of “smash mouth” basketball? Well, that era lasted about as long as a shrew's mating season. McHale's not having much fun anymore.

Ball-sharing issues between Szczerbiak and Cassell have been an ongoing source of tension for much of the season. It's part of the agenda when Wally offers such effusive praise for Anthony Carter (“I've been waiting my whole career to play with a point guard like AC,” Szczerbiak said earlier this month), who plays significant minutes only if Cassell is hurt. It made its way into New York Post writer Peter Vecsey's column two weeks ago. “If I ruled roundball,” Vecsey wrote, “the next time Sam Cassell executed a no-look, no-pass to a wide-open Wally Szczerbiak he'd be looking for a new team.” As I was remarking on the sideline contretemps between Cassell and Szczerbiak Sunday night, someone with the Wolves' traveling party on the road remarked, “That happens all the time.”

Nevertheless, there isn't a point guard on the Wolves roster who comes close to blending the vision, court savvy, and shooting touch Cassell possesses (defense is another matter). After missing yet another clump of games to mend that ailing, 35-year old hamstring, he entered Sunday's game with four minutes to play in the first quarter and the Wolves up by two. When Troy Hudson subbed back in for him halfway through the second period, Cassell had converted five of six shots, including a pair of threes, en route to 14 points and two assists in eleven minutes, boosting Minnesota/s lead to 12. That productive stint essentially decided the game.

 

Playoff picture: the schedule's the thing. Circumstances have conspired to make the Wolves's moribund “push” for a playoff berth more meaningful and dramatic over the next couple of weeks. The return of Michael Olowokandi and Eddie Griffin from injury provide McHale with more depth and length for his low-post oriented style of play, and coincides with an easing of the schedule that has Minnesota playing four sub-.500 teams in a row. The Wolves pretty much need a sweep of those contests to ride on Denver's back bumper. Minnesota is two-and-a-half games behind the Nuggets in the standings--but four in the lost column--with just 14 left to play.

After the quartet of cupcakes, the team takes to the road against Phoenix and Sacramento before returning home to face Utah and Denver. That final tilt versus the Nuggets on April 8 also pretty much qualifies as a “must-win,” because even if the Wolves win ten of the other 13 remaining games, a loss to Denver means the Nugs could merely split their other 16 remaining contests and still eliminate Minnesota from contention. And closing out the season at home against San Antonio already reeks of bad juju.

 

EJ Gone: Speaking of closures, it's quite possible that veteran center Ervin Johnson, currently on the team's ersatz disabled list, has played his last game in a Wolves uniform. EJ, whose contract expires this season, was Minnesota's most obvious victim of the NBA's new rules against hand-checking, which transformed aging, slow-footed, but physically shrewd defenders into foul-prone fossils. Most people, including me, regarded Johnson as a payroll burden Milwaukee foisted upon the Wolves by packaging him with Cassell in a trade that sent Joe Smith and Anthony Peeler to the Bucks two years ago. Instead, EJ brought stability, synergy, and locker room leadership to a squad burned by the injuries and underachievement of its erstwhile starting center, Michael Olowokandi. The opposite of flashy, EJ had skills that ideally complemented those of his longtime teammate Cassell, just one of many little reasons why the Wolves posted a gaudy 37-10 record with him in the starting lineup. He was, and is, a class act, and the character of next year's team will be poorer for his absence.

 
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