Marcus and Melo, AI, oh my!

Well, the Wolves played incredibly well against a very, very good Denver Nuggets team for much of the game Friday night. They ended up losing 99-91, but it was a terrific, exciting game. In the first quarter, as they were embarking on a 19-2 run, they played aggressive defense, ran the break and moved the ball beautifully. Sebastian Telfair (who winked at me during his post-game interview as he told a joke. Shucks. Also, he was wearing an amazing shirt with birds on it) was energetic and yet controlled in running the offense. Playing patiently within the flow of the offense, Rashad McCants started out 4-4 with a combination of nasty dunks and threes. It was great.

But the Nuggets slowly crept back against the Wolves second unit, unably led by Marko Jaric (see far, far below). In the second half, Carmelo Anthony (whom, I swear to you, the Chinese have nicknamed “Sweet Melon”) began calmly hitting shots and drawing fouls. The Wolves just didn’t have the poise and experience to hang on. I have a feeling that’s not the last time that line will be written.

When things are going well for the Wolves, when they are creating turnovers and running the floor and getting easy baskets, their offense has a lovely ease and grace. They are able to play with pace and still allow the offense to flow through their post players, Al Jefferson and Theo Ratliff, creating interior passing angles and open jump shots. But good teams are able to execute and score even when things are not coming easily. And when Denver turned up the pressure in the fourth quarter, the Wolves became a bit disheveled. When the Nuggets made their big run and Marcus Camby began to dominate (see below), the Wolves, admirably, were able to match Denver’s increased intensity. The difference in the game was that, at those same moments, Denver relaxed and executed on offense (as we saw the Spurs do so often in the playoffs last year) while the Timberwolves became frantic and undisciplined. After sitting out most of the third quarter because of foul trouble, McCants forgot his earlier patience and was forcing passes and taking contested jumpers.

After the game, much was (very delicately and euphemistically) made of the huge foul disparity—the Nuggets took 38 free-throws to the Wolves 19—and the fact that the star-laden Nuggets commanded a measure of respect from the officials that the Pups have yet to earn. This is true, no doubt, but the disparity also came about from the way the two teams drove to the hoop. Sweet Melon and AI always appeared poised and controlled as they drew contact. The Wolves, especially McCants and Telfair, looked out of control when they went to the basket; they looked like they couldn’t have made their layups even if Camby hadn’t been there to swat them away.

With Efficiency, Like a Fish in Sea Right now, efficiency is the hot new word in measuring the worth of NBA players. Scoring is not necessarily the best way to tell how much a player contributes to his team, since there are lots of players (Gilbert Arenas, splendiferous though he is) who score lots of points by using up tons of possessions and others (Shawn Marion) who help their teams immensely without ever dribbling.

This is a useful way to view the relative worth of Allen Iverson vs. Marcus Camby. Iverson is an incredibly dynamic, energetic and creative player, but he needs to dominate the ball in order to be effective. Very often he does something magnificent, something no one else can do—like when he shook Sebastian Telfair with a stunning crossover dribble amid traffic in mid-drive. Or when he elevated to the basket, drawing 11 Wolves defenders to him, brought the ball down to his waist as if to attempt a scoop shot and, in midair, fired a perfect chest pass to Sweet Melon for a wide open three. But he often shoots poorly (he was 4-14 last night) and turns the ball over. In other words, he’s inefficient. Amazing, beautiful, but inefficient.

Marcus Camby, on the other hand, though he almost never has plays called for him and cannot really create his own offense, does something good almost every time he touches the ball. He scored a modest 14 points against the Wolves, but did so on 7-10 shooting and added 21 rebounds and six blocked shots. Readers, that is a lot of rebounds and blocked shots.

Those tiresome folks who like to complain that the NBA regular season is meaningless and boring because of the players’ lack of intensity have either never sat very close to the court or have done so for so many years that they’ve become heartless and cynical. Because, especially in the fourth quarter, things get pretty heavy down there. And in those intense, chaotic moments, the influence of a player like Camby becomes obvious. Camby forced Al Jefferson and Theo Ratliff (could he really have been guarding them both? It seemed possible), both players who normally shoot a high percentage, into many awkward misses. After the game, Ratliff admitted that, because of Camby’s disruptive presence, shots that normally would have been dunks turned into forced layup attempts. When the game was close in the fourth quarter and the Wolves were desperately trying to hold on, Camby got every rebound and tap-out and block and follow up dunk. Sweet Melon made a lot of shots and Iverson was fast and intense, but Camby was completely dominant.

There are Trillions and Trillions of Scrubs Out There Nuggets guard Yakhouba Diawara came achingly close to recording a “trillion.” (A trillion, you may recall, is that hallowed record in which a player logs at least one minute of playing time while not registering a single other statistic on the box score, creating a soothingly harmonious uninterrupted series of zeroes on the stat line.) Diawara played a full 7:19, leaving a lone personal foul as his imprint on the world. Sadly for Wolves fans, and maybe for Yakhouba as well, he was outdone in sheer ridiculousness by the Wolves’ very own Marko Jaric. Marko’s line starts out promisingly (for fans of the trillion, at least). In more than 12 minutes of playing time, he managed to not put up a single field goal attempt or free-throw. Playing point guard for the entirety of his time on the floor, he did not manage to record one assist. He did commit four fouls, however, including a blatant charge that wiped out a Wolves score and a loose ball foul in which he lost rebounding position to Anthony and attempted to regain it by gently tapping Carmelo’s shoulder.

Now, Jaric seems like a good guy. There’s something really sweet and goofy about his manner which endears him to me and, seemingly, to his teammates as well. Early in his career with the Clippers he even seemed to approximate hipster fashion and good looks, which caused him to be lusted after by a very pretty girl I know.

But, I’m very sorry to say, the man is a terrible NBA player. He’s a slow, unconfident, shoot-first point guard who can’t (and now, apparently, doesn’t) shoot. He’s attempted more left-handed reverses in clutch situations than I can even fathom. He turns the ball over with frightening regularity. He can play some D (in fairness to him, he did pick up a rebound and two steals last night), but not against other point guards, which is a problem since that’s his position. Were it not for the sickeningly long and lucrative contract he signed with the Wolves a few years ago, he would likely be happily hoisting threes against other slow Europeans in Spain or Greece. And that would be awesome.

-Ben Polk

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