By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Last Wednesday night against the Oklahoma City (nee New Orleans) Hornets, Marko Jaric practically pissed himself through perhaps the worst 106 seconds of point guard play in Timberwolves history. With a minute gone in the third quarter and the Wolves up by a dozen, the man who is supposed to be the team's new floor general gift-wrapped a turnover to his Hornets counterpart Chris Paul, a six-foot-tall rookie who gave up seven inches to Jaric. Little more than half a minute later, Jaric allowed Paul to blow past him for an easy layup, promptly delivered another errant pass, fouled Paul in the act of shooting, palmed the ball for his third turnover of the nascent quarter, and helplessly committed another foul while Paul was converting another layup. Likely motivated by equal parts pity and disgust, Wolves coach Dwane Casey banished Jaric to the bench for the rest of the game, an eventual four-point loss to a team Minnesota rightly expected to beat.
You could see Jaric's meltdown coming five games away. Before suiting up to meet the Hornets, he hadn't played more than 27 minutes in any single contest since November 7, and self-doubt was visibly sapping his mental and physical acuity. Last Wednesday's game was the third straight in which he registered more turnovers than assists. Barely three weeks into the season, he candidly told reporters that his wretched play was making it hard for him to sleep at night.
The concern was appropriate. More than any other player on the roster, Jaric symbolizes the Wolves' decisive shift to a new, defense-oriented identity. He is almost the mirror opposite of Sam Cassell, a deadeye shooter and savvy passer who sabotaged Minnesota's perimeter defense last season with his bitchy indifference and gimpy hips and back. VP of basketball operations Kevin McHale, with Casey's obvious blessing, swapped Cassell and a first-round pick (which goes into effect the next year the Wolves make the playoffs) to the L.A. Clippers this summer in exchange for Jaric and the since-waived guard Lionel Chalmers. Another requirement of the trade was that Jaric sign a six-year, $38-million contract, which has left the Wolves tied to the 27-year-old Serb further into the future than they are to Kevin Garnett or anyone else.
Purging Cassell was necessary: At best he was going to be a rancorous, short-term offensive sparkplug working off the last year of his contract in Minnesota. But when Sammy keyed a surprising 9-2 start for the perpetually woeful Clips just as Jaric was beginning to lose his nerve, telegraph his passes, and play patty-cake with his dribble, the contrast was too glaring to ignore.
However, for the past two games (Tuesday's Wolves-Clippers matchup occurred after this was written), the Good Marko has been ascendant. Working against another little jitterbug point guard, T.J. Ford, in the Milwaukee game last Friday, Jaric used his size to drive to the hoop, racking up seven points (en route to a season-high 24) and three assists in the first quarter alone. And his pressure-packed jumper in the final minute against Cleveland made Cassell's crunch-time absence less palpable and helped spur Minnesota to a road win over a quality opponent.
But Jaric's contribution was even more pronounced on the defensive end. Twice in a row now, Casey has switched Jaric over to the opponent's most dynamic scorer in the fourth quarter, with favorable results. Few players put the ball in the hoop better than Milwaukee's Michael Redd and Cleveland's Lebron James--both rank among the NBA's top six scorers--yet Jaric, with strategic help from his teammates, limited both to well under 50 percent accuracy in the final period. This enabled Casey to inject Troy Hudson's offense into the lineup while benching on-ball stopper Trenton Hassell without a significant drop-off in the team's defensive tenacity.
The knock against Jaric in L.A. was that he was inconsistent and injury-prone. Right now, his mental toughness is more suspect than his health. At 6'7", his size is both a curse and a blessing, depending on the point guard matchup of the hour. But among the alternatives, Troy Hudson is a shoot-first (and second, and third) point guard who can't defend or run the offense particularly well, and Anthony Carter, while rugged enough on D, doesn't have the reliable jump shot or the long-term contract that is apparently necessary to warrant steady minutes. In other words, Jaric is vital to this team's fortunes, and is getting paid like a starter for the next six years. No more pants-peeing allowed.