One Man's Rubble is Another Man's Building Block

The Wolves' current squad is either inching toward improvement or crawling into the dustbin

It is tough to overestimate how nasty Sunday's last-second home loss to Philadelphia was to the psyche of this Timberwolves team, who blew a 19-point lead with 14 minutes left to play. Normally the last one out of the showers (while the daily beat writers with deadlines grit their teeth), Kevin Garnett was long gone before the media hit the lockers--a bad sign. In his postgame press conference, Coach Dwane Casey went into damage control mode, telling us yet again how hard his team had played. Then he was compelled to add, "These guys are hurting... I'm just as proud of these guys as anyone...if you want to blame anyone, blame me."

Sorry coach, there's too much blame for just one guy. Since you prefer to be the first one scrutinized, however, what are we to make of the fact that under Flip Saunders, Minnesota compiled a gaudy 64-39 record in "one-possession" games (those decided by three points or less) since the beginning of the 1996-97 season, but since you took over 38 games ago, your one-possession mark is 0-6? Or that the Wolves have squandered leads of 9 points or more 5 times in the past 10 games? You invariably call a timeout when the score is tight and there is less than a minute left in the quarter, half, or ballgame--so why is the execution out of those timeouts so unsuccessful? Answers to those questions shouldn't come close to limiting the blame to you, of course, but the numbers are what they are and you are the one in charge of the chalkboard, the clock, and the substitution patterns.

Let me offer up a couple of people Flip could call upon the past two years who are no longer on the roster: Sam Cassell and Fred Hoiberg. How many times did we watch Cassell hit a crunch-time shot and then swagger back down the court pretending to swing a pair of enormous balls? How many times did we see Hoiberg make the right inbounds pass, move to the right open spot to receive the ball, set the right pick to free up the shooter, box out the right man to prevent a putback, and bail out a teammate facing defensive pressure by rushing over to get the ball and then giving it right back? Cassell was the Timberwolves' second-best player two years ago; Hoiberg was the Wolves' second-best player last year. And both thrived in the fourth quarter.

But to get Sammy's crunch-time heroics this year would have required enduring his nonstop bitching, backbiting, and dissension-sewing complaints about his contract. (You think the bountiful joy and all-around improvement in Wally Szczerbiak's game isn't at least partially related to Cassell's absence?) He needed to go, no matter how much he is missed down the stretch right now. And while the decision to scrimp on $1.7 million by dumping Hoiberg from the roster might look pennywise, pound-foolish if Freddie opts to play for another team soon, the guy will set an NBA precedent by performing with a pacemaker if he returns.

Many Wolves fans will argue that this team simply isn't talented enough to pull out the close ones--that Casey's necessary reliance on KG and Wally in the game's first 45 minutes spends too much of their resources for the final 3. The team's 0-3 record in overtime games this year, after going 26-16 in overtime over the last nine years with Flip, supports that theory. But I think talent matters most in blowouts. When the Wolves get schooled by obviously superior teams from Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, or Phoenix, that's a core-competence gap. Yet all but one of the team's one-possession losses this season have been to mediocre opponents whose overall talent is comparable to Minnesota's: Philadelphia (twice), Sacramento, Milwaukee, and the Clippers. Meanwhile, just this past week, the team struggled mightily to hold off a lousy Knicks team; nearly blew the game at home against an Indiana squad without Artest, O'Neal, retired Reggie Miller, and a Jamaal Tinsley at full strength; and folded their tents versus a Celtics team more than ten games below .500.

By contrast, the last time the Wolves successfully came back from a double-digit deficit was December 7 against a callow Portland team--their fourth such resurgence in the team's first eight games. Is the reason for this turnaround a matter a talent deficit or a lack of confidence and resolve stemming from repeated failures? Obviously both. The relationship between competence and character is a chicken-or-the-egg equation.

But this remains one of the league's highest-paid rosters and it is time for everyone to step up. As Wally Szczerbiak--one of the precious few Timberwolves to hang around and face the music after yesterday's game--said when it was noted that he and KG combined for only three shots in the 4th quarter: "It doesn't matter who gets the shots...We don't need any agendas...It is up to the players to defend a 19-point lead."

That means Szczerbiak can't revert to the silly turnovers that occasionally plague this squad at crunch time (he had two--to go with his measly two shots--in the fourth quarter Sunday). It means KG has to beat back the same demons that haunted him before Cassell and Spree arrived, when it was argued that he was too unselfish (meaning perhaps not sufficiently courageous) to seize control at the finish. (He had a pair of assists versus just one woefully short shot on Sunday.) And it means there is room at the table for a player to seize a bigger role for himself on this ballclub, a subject we'll address later in this report.

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