Grizzled: Rudy Gay blows up the Timberwolves

I will admit that I was among the many who were shocked and confused by the Rockets’ trade of their prized lottery pick, Rudy Gay, to the Memphis Grizzlies for Shane Battier, a veteran with mediocre numbers. This season has proven me (and all those other people) wrong as Battier has shown himself to be maybe the best “glue” player in the league—one of those selfless dudes who can shut people like Kobe Bryant down, hit open shots, make the right passes, and just play outrageously hard (Ryan Gomes is of a similar mold, I think—a bit less great on D, a bit better around the basket). The fact that the Rockets were able to win 22 games in a row, over half of those without Yao Ming, is a testament to just how important Battier is to their team. On the other hand, as I found out last night, Rudy Gay is nasty.

Cosby Kidz

Gay is long and lithe and has that Pippen-esque quality of being both angular and smooth. He has a feathery jumper that just kind of gently floats through the net on its way down which he complements with dumbfounding explosiveness (also like Pippen—lets hope Rudy’s a nicer guy, or at least better with his money so as not to find himself, out of financial necessity, gunning threes in Finland in his forties). He first brought himself to my attention in the first quarter of last night’s game against the Wolves (a 113-101 Griz victory). It was one of those plays that looks pretty nice on TV but in person really makes you feel like puking at the sheer unreality of it. Gay was running the wing on the break awaiting a pass from teammate Mike Miller that, from where I sat, looked to be heading about six rows into the stands. Gay leaped really, really high into the air and then, in one alarmingly quick and fluid motion, extended his spidery right arm even higher, softly ladled the ball in his hand and whipped it through the hoop. My body does not do that and neither does yours.

He did a few more, only slightly less ridiculous, things on his way to a very nice game (23 points on 9-17 shooting, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, a game-high +25) which neatly coincided with the sweet-shooting Miller tying his season-high of 34 points on 12-20 shooting (8-12 from three, also: 10 rebounds, 6 dimes). Obviously, the Wolves had trouble handling Gay and Miller but their real problem was perimeter defense. Memphis’ offense—a version Phoenix’s spread—is predicated on guards creating passing angles through penetration. All evening, Randy Foye, Rashad McCants and Marko Jaric were unable to prevent the Memphis guards from getting into the lane. This forced the Wolves’ other perimeter players to help inside, leaving their men open for jumpers.

Oh, the Wolves’ other real problem was that, for two important stretches, they, in Coach Wittman’s words “came out to play this game to get it over with.” Wittman was referring to the team’s anemic start, when they allowed Memphis to run out to a 21-8 lead. They managed to recover from that early swoon, putting together nice runs in the second and fourth quarters, predicated on (guess what?) energy, tough defense and ball movement. Up by five with 7 minutes left and the Grizzlies on their heals, they were in solid position to win the game. Next followed one of those chokey 4th quarter stretches of poor offensive execution and confused defense that makes one wonder if the Wolves have learned much since the first game of the season (a fairly identical effort against a much better team). Suddenly, the team was turning the ball over and Miller was again open outside and just as suddenly the Wolves found themselves down by 12. And that was it. I can't believe I haven't said anything about Darko. I was expecting fireworks from the Grizzlies' sallow poet. But he didn't really do much. Anyway.

Not Feeling Randy

The Wolves have a lot of big decisions to make this offseason (like, for instance, whether to play Al Jefferson at center or his natural power forward) but probably the biggest one is what to do about Randy Foye. Foye’s talent is not at issue. He is a good, quick ballhandler and an explosive finisher, both at the rim and in the midrange game. He is a decent, intelligent guy and an aware player. But, although Foye is unselfish, he is much more creative when he looks for his own shot than when he facilitates for his teammates. He lacks Sebastian Telfair’s instinct for the penetrating pass, the one that challenges the defense early in a possession, that creates ball movement and leads to open shots. Against Memphis, Foye shot the ball well (8-16) and he was among the team’s leading scorers with 17 points. But, as is often the case, when he ran the point, the Wolves’ were a less cohesive, more one-on-one oriented team. And, as against the Grizzlies, he has struggled defensively, allowing quicker point guards to penetrate the paint and break down the defense. Basically—and I know the sample is still pretty small considering the injury that kept him out for most of this year—he has not yet shown whether he can be an NBA point guard. He could play the two, but the Wolves already have an undersized, ball-dominating, defensively average shooting guard in Rashad McCants. How long should the team wait for Foye to figure things out? It’s a tough call and one that will be made even tougher if the Wolves find themselves in a position to draft a serious point guard, like, say, Memphis’ frighteningly good Derrick Rose.

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