The Three-Pointer: A Quality Win

1) Casey defies critics, still triumphs Like most of those who have recently been ripping Coach Dwane Casey for all manner of perceived miscues, I was feeling pretty smug about the Wolves win in Philadelphia Sunday. Casey had shortened his bench and unwittingly began getting in line with my preferred substitution rotation, consigning Troy Hudson, Eddie Griffin, and Justin Reed to the dustbin so that the promising rooks could glean more minutes. He'd also put Randy Foye and Mike James together more often, exercised a shorter leash with Ricky Davis to goad him into playing better defense, and produced just the fourth Wolves win in the team's last 25 road games.

So what happens tonight? Hudson subs in for Foye early in the second quarter after Foye guides his team's offense to just four points in more than six minutes of play against Houston's league-best defense. Then with three minutes to go and a point down--almost exactly the same situation where his subbing of the two rooks spelled the difference in Philly--Casey throws Hudson alongside Smith in the sub rotation, and for good measure yanks KG and inserts Reed with 1:18 left. When the quarter ends, the Wolves are up 4.

To begin the 4th, Griffin subs in for Reed. That's Griffin and Hudson in a toss-up game against one of the NBA's better teams. It lasts nearly four minutes into the period. When KG returns, the Wolves are down 2. If Minnesota loses, I see it as a crucial turning point and prepare to excoriate Casey.

But now KG is rested, and proves more than capable of a spirited stretch run. Marko Jaric and Mike James--two other Casey subs in the first two minutes of the 4th period, combine with Mark Blount, and, ahem, Troy Hudson, who plays the entire final stanza, to propel the Wolves to victory, 90-84.

After the game, Casey shrewdly mentioned that the Wolves wanted to push the pace (led by Yao, Houston is a physically large squad, and played last night at home before traveling north); that the "young fella," meaning Foye, was "struggling a little bit" and so he shifted over the Hudson. "Huddy was ready to play--I'm really proud of him," the coach said, then deliciously added, "People get caught up in rotations." But not Casey, who went with his gut, played every guy in uniform, and walked away with a quality win.

PS, those of us with a distaste for Huddy's game need to acknowledge that he has played a significant fourth quarter role in two of the Wolves's eight wins.

2) That's Davis with a D, on the bench at crunctime The object of the most consistent and nasty criticism in this space (at least from yours truly) has been Ricky Davis. Well, for the third or fourth game in a row, Davis mostly busted his hump on defense, and whenever that happens, the Wolves are much improved. Shane Battier, who'd nailed all five of his treys in Houston's last meeting with Minnesota, had just five points in 29 minutes after three quarters of action.

But that wasn't all Davis contributed in his best all-around game of the season. The long rumored, rarely seen "flow" offense was triggered in transition by Davis's superb passing savvy and court vision. He dished dimes as the middle man on outlet-to-layup drills, zipped balls into the paint in the half court sets, drew innumerable double teams and swung the rock to the wide open weakside teammate, and threw in some basic pick and roll material. After three periods, he'd racked up 9 assists and two-thirds of them were suitable for framing. He had also matched KG's team-leading 7 rebounds. Throw in the defense and his fitful shooting--1-6 FG--was easy to overlook.

Yet, in a grim bit of irony, Davis was one of the casualties of Casey's 4th quarter machinations, sitting the final 10:45 of the game despite his stellar, versatile peformance. After the game, Casey and KG both confirmed a point I'd wondered about in my last post; that lately when Davis's shot isn't falling, he's stepped up his effort in aspects. For a guy who openly campaigns to play more than 40 minutes per night--and essentially averaged that much last season--what kind of a message does it send when he receives extended pine time on precisely the occasion he does all the little (and not so little) things augured by his sublime athleticism?

I guess we'll see on Friday against Utah whether Davis comes out jacking up jumpers and laying off his man in the half court defense. Hope not. There are a lot of beguiling elements on this roster--the superstardom of KG, the scoring prowess of Mike James, the already mature promise of Foye and Smith--but the real longshot catalyst that could transform the Wolves into a genuine playoff contender would be Ricky Davis getting his head, heart and body functioning on all cylinders at the same time.

3) KG's unsung defense

Tonight was the embodiment of the cliche, "team win." Jaric used his gifted hands to procure a trio of steals and a beauty of a block-and-grab on a jumper by Tracy McGrady, plus five rebounds and four points (versus a single digit for T-Mac) in the 4th quarter alone. James and Blount each put their oar in deeply for a half; James nailing 6-7 FGs (including two threes) for 15 points in the first half, while Blount went turnover-free (after 4 in the first half) and banged home 4-5 FG plus a pair of blocks and game defense on Yao the Giant in the 3rd period, then stood strong again down the stretch late in the 4th quarter. Trenton Hassell did his thing on McGrady, and even if Marko did it better later on, the bottom line is that Hassell logged 26:40 and T-Mac finished 5-21 FG for the game.

But the leader of the evening was Garnett, and just because we expect it doesn't mean we shouldn't soak in every moment. Tonight, KG was the linchpin in Casey's defensive gameplan. The Rockets like to run the pick and roll with Tracy McGrady and Chuck Hayes so that Yao can be stationed down low or on the opposite block as a devastating third option. But whenever they tried it, Hassell and KG switched and Garnett was with T-Mac out on the perimeter. Similarly, when Yao touched the ball, KG's job was to double down hard or rotate over aggressively. Bottom line, Garnett frequently found himself guarding either McGrady or Yao--obviously two very different players with almost opposite approaches to scoring. Now, without question, both of Houston's stars evinced signs of fatigue. But Garnett's amazing versatility on defense contributed to their combined 10-40 FGs (Yao was 5-19). KG also had 24 points (7-12 FG, 10-12 FT), 12 boards, 4 assists, 3 blocks, a steal, and no turnovers. After the game, he talked about how the team is still coming together, like a gourmet meal that takes time to prepare. I still doubt it, but, given the immediate context, it didn't sound ridiculous.

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