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The Three-Pointer: A Much-Needed Feel-Good About The Future Game

1. Three into two It's all quickening for Rashad McCants right now, coming together like the first time you put on a pair of glasses after denying you needed them for months or years, and everything is suddenly sharp and in its proper perspective. McCants filled the lane and made a breakaway steal tonight; and zipped a pass to KG in the low block for a three-point play in the fourth quarter that pretty much sealed the Wolves win; and battled on the boards for at least two competitive defensive rebounds; and plied that sweet stroke of his for 21 points on just 9 field goal attempts.

Desperate for good tidings, Coach Casey said after the game that nurturing young talent like McCants was the season's top priority. Ever mindful of the now-bullshit credo about striving for the playoffs, the one everybody within this organization still has to preach, preferably without rolling their eyes, Casey did make noises about winning the division, but it was obviously and appropriately an afterthought. I've said all along that proper rebuilding and postseason contention weren't contradictory goals, but McCants's dysfunction made that idea seem silly straight past Christmas and up through Valentine's Day. But now, way way belatedly, McCants "gets it," which doesn't mean there won't be backsliding, and probably even an extended funk or two that makes the current enthusiasm for him seem psychedelically enhanced; but does mean that his future success is now a matter of willpower and discipline rather than nebulous notions like "potential" and "fate." Given his performances over the past couple to three weeks, we finally know: He can play.

And so now he has to play. And that's a bit of a dilemma: a rare, pleasant, quasi-embarrassment of semi-riches. Because one assumes that Ricky Davis and Trenton Hassell also have fairly strong claims on regular minutes, and given the stellar play of Justin Reed as a power forward against small lineups, and the preference to nurture Marcus Banks over Marko Jaric at the point, the relatively pint-sized Wolves only have two spots for those three gentleman--Hassell, McCants, and Davis.

After the game, I asked Casey how he intends to resolve that dilemma. At first he thought I was bugging him about not giving Hassell enough minutes, and justified his limitation of Hassell's time on the basis of momentum, etc. A nice explanation but not an answer to my question so I asked again: How do you apportion time for three guys at two positions? And he answered me. "The guys who give it to me on the defensive end are going to get the minutes," he replied, ticking off the various virtues of defensive play before leaving himself some wiggle room by saying that the rotation would also "be based on matchups" and that "I'm sure they'll be enough minutes for all of them."

My vote is for Hassell, who is flexible enough to credibly try and give you whatever you need during the course of the game, and who is, without question, the best on-ball defender on the team; and McCants, who can score with more versatility and vigor than anyone on the roster, and is, just maybe, a future star in this league. I would make Ricky Davis my sixth man, a role in which he florished in Boston, and which allows him to jack up his beloved transition 18-foot jumpers with 20 seconds on the shot clock without anybody getting too bent out of shape. I might even have Davis in the game at crunch time, since, if anything, he seems to elevate game when it matters, and that is a quality that must be fostered and utilized. But most of the time--taking into consideration Casey's cavaet about matchups, and McCants's inevitable roller coaster of inexperience--I'd give the preponderance of time to the Yeoman and the Rookie.

And if Dwane Casey is true to his word on making defense a priority--something he has said frequently and backed-up sporadically--then he will do the same thing. Because Ricky Davis is an indifferent defender, whose experience makes him better on D than an indifferent McCants, but not the McCants who has shown up for the past three games. Sometimes plus/minus stats are meaningless or misleading, but here's one with unmistakeable significance: In the 44:26 seconds Davis played tonight, the Wolves and Nets played to a draw. In the 3:36 he was on the bench, the Wolves were a plus-10. By contrast, McCants was plus-19. Hassell was plus-2 in 24:32 of play.

2. Reed and Jaric. Not pretty, just effective. At halftime, Wolves stat guru Paul Swanson (a secret weapon of hoops knowledge all self-respecting basketball writers should listen to) pointed out that regardless of what anyone thinks, or even sees with their own eyes when Marko Jaric plays, "the Wolves score more points than the other team, it seems about 80 percent of the time, when he is on the court." Indeed, headed into tonight's game, Jaric's plus/minus for the season was plus-95, well ahead of anyone else on the team--KG is second at plus-27.

Yes, it is true that Jaric benefited from being scraped, perhaps prematurely, into the dustbin of Kevin McHale's misfit personnel decisions at precisely the time the Wolves were tanking (extended pine time during the Golden State blow-out alone probably saved him 25 points on the plus/minus ledger). But, as Swanson infers, perhaps there is a connection between the Wolves tanking and Jaric sitting.

The problem is that Jaric's weaknesses are writ in neon--his airball threes, his galumpy defense against what Casey refers to as "beep beep" (for roadrunner-quick) point guards, and his tendency to, let's not put too fine a point on it, choke when he has time to think about failure and the game is in the balance. Meanwhile, his virtues blend into the muted, pastel shades of teamwork--he length, quick hands, and court vision make him a superb help defender, he boxes out well, he's extremely versatile, he defers his shot so others may pet their egos, and he's as physically tough as he is mentally suspect. This is a prescription for being underrated.

This is not to say that the Wolves are mistaken in grooming Banks and mixing Jaric in at various spots in the rotation and portions of the game. Given the other options, Banks is a worthy gamble, provided Minnesota can sign him for a fairly slight amount of money at the end of the season--something like Eddie Griffin's $8 million, 3-year deal seems about right. But neither should they let him languish and gnaw on his uncertainty they way they did during most of February.

Instead, let's make Marko a handyman, which perfectly suits his skills and temperament. For a vexing but not particularly chronic or vital malady, see if Marko can fix it. Tonight, for example, the dilemma was that point guard Jason Kidd has had success operating out of the low post, Marcus Banks is not exactly your A-1 defender, and the Wolves already had Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson to worry about. So they turned to one of the very few point guards taller than Kidd, and, despite missing all three of his shots and one of two free throws in the 4th quarter, Jaric once again delivered, with a game-best plus-22 performance in just 24:36 of play.

Justin Reed, aka Black Lenin, aka Sweat Equity #9 (just made that up), is someone more enjoyable to root for than Jaric. For one thing he doesn't have a six-year, $38 million deal to fall back upon. He also plays like Mark Madsen under a higher dose of Ritalin--not under control, exactly, and still prone to spazz out into box-outs that leave the opponent in the third row, or fouls that remain tender bruises three weeks after he commits them, but also able to square up and bang down a baseline jumper, become the linchpin middle-man on the fast break, or surprise his man with a quick, silky smooth first step off the dribble.

The latter feat occurred in the fourth quarter of tonight's game, with the Wolves up by 5 with 4 minutes left in the game. Reed noticed that sage veteran Cliff Robinson had sussed out that the set play called for a pass to KG, and cheated toward the middle in hopes of getting the steal. Instead, he improbably and gloriously went hard down the left lane and banked it in as Robinson hacked him.

For the game Reed was plus-19, tied for second with McCants behind Jaric's plus-22. Two games ago, I asked Casey if going to Reed as his power forward in a small lineup where KG is the tallest man on the court was something he could do on a regular basis. Casey answered probably not, but that it would be based on matchups in any case. Well, as long as Mark Blount delays his defensive reactions just long enough to reliably commit the foul (not since Felton Spencer have the Wolves heard the whistle blow so often at one human being), and as long as Casey believes Eddie Griffin does not belong in the rotation, we will see a fair amount of this small lineup, with Lenin as the puny but game power forward. In fact, Casey conceded that he erred in not playing Reed more minutes in the desultory loss to Chicago on Tuesday. The bottom line is that Reed has been more consistent than any of the other three players acquired in the trade with the Celtics. Tonight was his career high in both points (14) and minutes-played (29:10). But it won't be long before he tops the minutes, if not the points.

3. Belated praise for Jim Peterson A couple of months ago there was a flurry of discussion about the Wolves broadcast team. While I don't hear Jim Peterson during home games, I obviously do catch him when the club is on the road, and I thought he turned in an especially perceptive performance during Tuesday's Chicago game. In particular, it is a real quandary why the Wolves might perform better for the entire month of February when their superstar, Kevin Garnett, is on the bench rather than on the court. Without directly calling attention to the discrepancy, Pete shrewdly pointed out two reasons for it.

First, opponents are fronting Garnett more and more, a defensive strategy that is actually more wearisome for KG than the defenders, who are leaning on him in a fronting situation rather than vice-versa. (It is also a situation the Wolves haven't properly discouraged, in part because they lack the outside shooting or another strong low-post presence.) Second, Peterson pointed out a play where KG was getting doubled in the low block and looking for someone to pass to, but none of his teammates were moving without the ball. Off-the-ball movement increases exponentially on this team when KG sits versus when he plays. This does a great disservice to Garnett, who rewards open teammates more than any top-20 scoring superstar the game.

It felt like Peterson embraced the Boston trade with a bit too much enthusiasm, particularly his ardor for Mark Blount. But he generally has not hesitated to rip the Wolves when he feels it is warranted (and the occasions have certainly presented themselves this season), and his critiques, as well as his praise, is almost always illuminating.

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