Bucking the trend

They say that pinstripes are thinning. And friends, it must be true, because Antoine Walker, a man who this week was traded to the Timberwolves from the Miami Heat, reportedly for being fat, looked positively svelte in his black and charcoal suit. When you recall that the Heat boast the presence of a nearly 400-pound man whose body is literally decaying with every passing day, this explanation seems less plausible. It probably makes most sense to suggest that the trade went down because he was an aging, sulky, un-athletic gunner who will forever be cherished (in my mind, at least) as the man who, when asked why he shoots so many three-pointers, offered the magical response: "because there ain’t no fours."

Antoine seems like a decent guy and seems to be doing his best to be a social, supportive teammate. Last night he even seemed ready to weather the onslaught of whiteness that is Mark Madsen, as the two chatted amiably behind the Wolves bench. (Good gracious, I would cut out my own eyes just to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.) But I can’t imagine how, aside from beguiling somebody into surrendering a first-round draft choice or expiring deal (the Sixers, a reliable sucker, come to mind), the guy is going to fit into the Wolves' new plans. In last night’s 106-85 exhibition victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Wolves looked young, unselfish and energetic, and I’m not sure that adding an inefficient, defense-allergic, shoot-first wing just as they say goodbye to a younger, more skilled version of the same player (Ricky Buckets, thanks for the awesomeness) is going to help matters.

It seems strange for anyone who’s followed the Wolves preseason so far, but honestly, they really looked good. There are probably some aspects of their play that will be tough to count on consistently—I’m guessing Rashad McCants won’t go 8-of-8 every night, for instance, or the team shoot 61 percent—and they did turn the ball over 30 times (doh), lose track of a lot of cutters on defense, and foul with a joyous abandon. They also benefited from the fact that the Bucks committed twenty-seven turnovers of their own, and turned in, in the words of coach Larry Krystowiak, "a horrendous effort." But in building their huge first-half lead, the Wolves played with tons of energy, passed the ball crisply, ran the floor like pros and finished with flair and authority. They forced the Bucks into lots of ugly possessions, most of which featured point guard Mo Williams dribbling aimlessly around the perimeter and either turning the ball over or kicking it to a teammate for a frantic three-pointer with time running out on the shot clock.

Possibly most significant of all, Al Jefferson, the key component in the Kevin Garnett trade, totally dominated everybody. Especially in the first half, the Wolves point guards did a good job of finding Jefferson in the post early in possessions (could Bassie Telfair really be as good as he looks right now? Is it remotely possible?), and Jefferson made use of the time and space to score consistently. In thirty minutes of playing time, he shot 9-of-12 from the field for 24 points, making Charlie Villanueva look slow and confused. (As a side-note, Villanueva is an incredible looking guy. His bald head and smooth, blank baby-ish complexion make him look sort of like a black Powder. Also, his knee-length black socks are only a shade or two darker than the Bucks forest green silken unis—this delicious combo creates a sort of M.C. Escher-esque time-transcending optical illusion, a lot like staring into a parallel universe, or a magic-eye drawing. My brain kept trying to make a skeleton riding a motorcycle appear on his knees). Now, as we know, Kevin Garnett is possibly the best power forward ever to play. Watching him play basketball was, to me, similar to watching the sun set or the waves roll in from the ocean. He is my favorite basketball player, and I think I love him. But: I think Al Jefferson might have a better offensive game than KG. He catches the ball lower on the block, and, whereas Kevin liked to turn, face the basket and attempt to beat his man off the dribble, often resulting in a contested fadeaway, Jefferson’s array of back-to-the-basket moves usually creates him more space and allows him to finish at the rim. Some of the moves he put on Black Powder were so filthy they made me yell. I was shocked by how outrageously skilled this dude is.

Things got surreal for me as I came into the Wolves dressing room after the game. Jefferson, McCants, Ryan Gomes (who, it turns out, is a really charming, friendly guy), Randy Foye and Corey Brewer were watching highlights of the Celtics-Cavs game, in which the aforementioned KG managed a triple-double and some ridiculous highlights. It was beyond strange to see these normal (sort of) guys chatting about their former team and teammate, the most successful franchise in NBA history and a player so iconic that I just now compared him to the weather. The real world, the one with real people who have jobs and feelings, meshed bewilderingly with the media/consumer/computer world and kind of blew my mind. The talk was loose and funny and you could tell, as you can by watching them play, that they really enjoy each other, and really enjoy playing basketball. Most of all, from their casual banter, and from looking at their fresh faces, they just seemed incredibly young. Al Jefferson is only twenty-two; Gerald Green and the heartbreakingly skinny Corey Brewer are just twenty-one. These are the ages where most of us are just figuring what we want from the world and who we want to be and its amazing to me that we’re asking these guys to compete against grizzled celebrities like the Tim Duncan’s and Kevin Garnett’s of the world. These young T-Wolves are playing with enthusiasm, and if they can figure out how to play fast, while protecting the ball and keeping Jefferson involved, they just might be pretty good. I say we give this a shot. It could be fun.

-Ben Polk

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